Pakistan Reader# 164, 15 March 2021
Following various accusations, the ECP boldly declared by-elections to be null and void and announced fresh elections.Sneha M
On 19 February, National Assembly- 75 (Sialkot IV) witnessed by-elections after the PML-N leader Syed Iftikhar ul Hassan Shah's demise. The Daska by-election was contested mainly by two major parties, PTI and PML-N, whose candidates were Ali Asjad Malhi and Nosheen Iftikhar respectively. However, by the end of the day, PML-N accused PTI of rigging the elections. After a bizarre incident of 20 presiding officers going missing in the constituency for several hours, along with the officials of district administration, the Election Commissioner of Pakistan Sikandar Sultan Raja withheld Sialkot polling results.
Following various accusations on the PTI, ECP boldly on 25 February declared by-elections to be null and void and announced that fresh elections would be conducted on 18 March. The PML-N leaders accepted this decision; nevertheless, the PTI has taken a step ahead in the wrong direction of challenging ECP's decision, right after attempting to manipulate poll results.
The importance of the NA-75 for the PTI
One could identify the following reasons why the PTI wanted a desperate win in the by-poll. Results favouring PTI in NA-75 elections can prove that the party still enjoys the people's support and solidarity in the region. However, the results both in NA and provincial by-elections depict a different story. The opposition parties, which channelled their political energy to retain seats in the previously won constituencies, managed to do so. In contrast, PTI could only secure its seat in Kurram and lost in Nowshera, which had enjoyed immense support from the people. (Maleeha Lodhi, Dawn, 'Shifting Politics,' 1 March 2021).
Also losing popularity in Punjab means PTI is probably losing its foothold in the next general elections. Punjab is one of the most populous provinces; there is a belief "whosoever gets the majority of Punjab seats will form the government at the center." Therefore, this could be one of the reasons why winning a single NA seat matters for PTI. NA-75 Sialkot being the heartland of PML-N rule, PTI which made it a matter of prestige to defeat its rival in its fortress, perhaps thought manipulation of poll results would fetch outcomes favoring them, but PTI's fate flipped.
For the PDM, this is a moral victory against the PTI
The evidence of rigging has come at the right time for the opposition to question the Imran Khan government's credibility. According to Zahid Hussain, it is now hard for the PTI to defend itself from the opposition's onslaught. The 2018 Punjab Provincial elections showed a massive victory of PTI and the downfall of PML-N, hence as a mere responsibility of the opposition itself. It provides the PDM the legitimacy to question the capabilities and inadequacies of conducting a free and fair election by the Punjab government. The opposition has criticized the PTI-led government in Punjab in the lines of civilian administration's irresponsibility.
The strong message from the Election Commission
On 24 February, the Election Commission of Pakistan had ordered a suspension of Daska's Assistant Commissioner and two Deputy superintend of police. The Election commission of Pakistan is an independent, permanent, and the constitutionally established federal body responsible for conducting elections for various government branches. However, for many years its credibility and sovereignty have been contested by corrupt leaders.
The ECP, spearheaded by the Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja, seems to strengthen its functioning and autonomy. In its detailed order, ECP stated that "the election in the subject constituency has not been conducted honestly, justly, and legally. In the case of NA-75 by-elections, ECP took a brave attitude of acknowledging and also taking a pro-active stance of suspending those involved in the unethical practices during counting.
The Election Commission of Pakistan, in its announcement, has provided a paradigm shift from the existing fraudulent election procedure to that of new "free, just and fair" elections. A Dawn editorial observes, "If a democratic state cannot even organize a free and fair election in a single constituency, and if the polling staff has to work under threat of abduction without anyone being held responsible, then Pakistan's democratic institutions are far weaker than we would want to admit." (Editorial "Poll Storm," Dawn, 23 February 2021)
About the author
Sneha M is enrolled with the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan. She is also pursuing her Masters in International Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. Her research focus includes Gender and Social Issues in Pakistan.