Pakistan Reader# 168, 21 March 2021
This week, the demand for two resignations by two different and opposing political actors took centre stage in Pakistan’s politics. The first one came from the PTI; leaders of the ruling party demanded that the senior officials of the Election Commission resign for their failure to conduct the Senate elections without any malpractices. The Election Commission is an independent institution and not an agent of the government; hence the senior officials are not bound to accede to the PTI demand and resign.
The second demand had come from the PML-N and the JUI-F, as a part of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM); both have demanded that the PDM members resign from the provincial and national assemblies and start a long march against the PTI. Since the PPP is not in favour of the resignation strategy, Fazlur Rahman, leader of the PDM, has postponed the long march that was planned earlier.
The PTI’s demand for resignation of Election Commission officials: Stated and unstated reasons
On 15 March, Dawn referred to a statement by Shafqat Mehmood, PTI’s Minister for Education. He has called for the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the four Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) members. According to Dawn, the minister stated: “There is no option left now. The election commission cannot continue to function in its current state. The ECP [members] should collectively resign.”
Why would the PTI want the Chief Election Commissioner and the four members of the ECP to resign? The stated reason is that the ECP had failed to conduct the recent Senate elections transparently. The PTI has a right to complain about what had happened on 3 March 2021 to the Senate elections in Islamabad. On that day, the Senate election for the vacant seats was held, which resulted in the PTI becoming the single largest party in the Senate.
Though the Senate elections went according to the numbers in the rest of Pakistan, there was a significant problem in Islamabad. Despite having the numbers, the PTI failed to get both its candidates elected from Islamabad. While the PTI won the Woman seat from Islamabad, it lost the general seat; its candidate – the finance minister – Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, lost to Yousaf Raza Gillani, the joint candidate of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). Despite the Opposition parties nominating a common candidate, the numbers still favoured the PTI candidate.
However, Gillani won the general seat from Islamabad, despite not having enough votes. Some from the PTI coalition should have voted in favour of Gillani against the party’s command. This is precisely what the PTI was afraid of. Even before the Senate elections were announced, the PTI wanted to conduct the elections through an open ballot against using the existing secret ballot method. The ECP was not in favour of the idea; the PTI filed for a judicial reference and passed an Ordinance. Unfortunately, on the eve of Senate elections, the Supreme Court gave its opinion that the Senate election should be held according to the Constitution – meaning through a secret ballot. The Supreme Court had also asked the ECP to conduct the elections transparently, using technology.
The PTI’s stated complaint is – the ECP failed to conduct the Senate elections free of manipulation.
However, the PTI’s unstated anger against the ECP does not come from what happened on 3 March. It is more related to what happened earlier on 19 February 2021. Developments on that fateful day led to PTI suffering a major political setback in Punjab. The ECP held the by-poll to a national assembly seat (NA-75, Daska) in Sialkot district. There was violence on the day of the election, and presiding officers of more than ten polling booths disappeared for a substantial period. The ECP, after an initial investigation, declared the entire election for NA-75 null and void, and has announced a re-poll. The ECP also found collusion of officials from Punjab province – from police officers to civilian administration. It has ordered their suspension.
For the PTI, winning the Daska seat is essential. From Punjab and from the PML-N’s heartland, the seat is of political significance. Perhaps, this was the reason why the PTI wanted to win the seat anyhow. The ECP has stood up against the government and refused to get bullied.
For the PTI, it is the loss of face in Punjab and the standing up of the ECP against its wishes, has made the party angry and ask for the resignation of ECP members.
Why is the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) divided over resignation from the provincial and national assemblies? Why is the PPP against the idea?
The PDM also has run into rough weather over another resignation demand. Unlike the PTI, the PDM is not demanding that the members of the ECP should resign, for what happened on 12 March 2021 in the Senate, for the post of Chairman and Deputy Chairman.
On 12 March, the Senate held an election to elect two officials of the House – Chairman and Deputy Chairman. Though the PTI is the single largest party in the Senate, the Opposition has a majority. The PTI and its coalition have 47 votes, whereas the PDM has 53. The numbers should have favoured the PDM in the election for both the offices – Chairman and Deputy Chairman. Unfortunately, for the Chairman election, seven votes polled in favour of the PDM’s candidate – Gillani was rejected on a technicality. As a result, the government’s candidate – Sanjrani got elected as the Chairman of the Senate. However, for the office of the Deputy Chairman, the government’s candidate got 54 votes, against the PDM’s candidate, who got only 44 votes. The PDM should have won both the offices, but lost them.
An upset PDM has filed a reference in the judiciary. The PDM – especially the JUI-F and PML-N wants to resign from the national and provincial assemblies and launch a long march against the PTI government. They want to make use of the political disaster on 12 March, and convert the same into a rallying cry against the PTI.
Politically, what happened in the Daska election and the Senate Chairman election should provide the fuel for PDM to launch the long march. However, it wants to add further pressure by resigning from the assemblies. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, in particular, sees no reason not to resign. Nawaz Sharif and other leaders of minor parties within the PDM agree with the Maulana. The PPP does not; it has its reservation.
While the PPP would be willing to join the rest of the PDM in launching the long march against the government, it is not keen on resigning from the assemblies. Especially from the provincial assembly, PPP is the only party to have formed a government. The PPP would have more to lose by resigning than any other parties inside the PDM. Besides, Zardari may want to pursue confrontation politics but maybe against making it suicidal, which Fazlur Rahman wants.
So, where would the PDM go from here? Will, it split? Unlikely. The PDM would know that they would lose more by standing divided. Fazlur Rahman and Nawaz Sharif would have to reconsider their suicidal approach and continue to have their long march without resigning from the assemblies.