Islamabad, Pakistan – The Supreme Court in Pakistan has ruled that elections to the country’s upper house of parliament, due this week, must be held under a secret ballot, effectively nullifying a government move to require they be held through open ballot.
The top court’s verdict, announced in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Monday, said the country’s constitution was clear that a secret ballot was required for all elections, and the election commission was empowered to take steps to ensure there was no corruption in the process.
The verdict is being seen as a blow to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which had attempted to change the process for the Senate elections first through a failed constitutional amendment and then through a presidential ordinance this year.
The court, however, ruled that secrecy of the ballot “is not absolute”.
“[The] Election Commission is required to take all available measures including utilising technologies to fulfill the solemn constitutional duty to ensure that the election is ‘conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law and that corrupt practices are guarded against,’” said the verdict.
Following the announcement, information minister Shibli Faraz, a member of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, welcomed the court’s directives regarding limiting the secrecy of the ballot to curb possible unfair practices.
“The respected judges of the Supreme Court have pointed out that to clean up elections, technology must be used,” he told reporters shortly after the verdict was announced.
“And the Election Commission of Pakistan should take all those steps that would clean up the elections.”
Pakistan’s Senate consists of 96 members who serve staggered six-year terms after being elected by members of the country’s provincial and national assemblies. The election of 48 senators is due to take place on Wednesday.
Bought and sold
Previous elections to the Senate have been marred by allegations of horse-trading, with legislators’ votes often violating their party’s orders.
Khan’s PTI party has long contended that legislators’ votes are bought and sold ahead of the Senate polls to engineer results.
In 2018, the PTI expelled 20 members it said had violated party voting lines and engaged in corrupt practices in the Senate polls held in March that year.
Earlier this year, the government was unable to gain sufficient support in Parliament to pass a constitutional amendment that would change the process of voting in the Senate polls.
It then passed a presidential ordinance, which is a temporary measure, to require that voting be held under open balloting rules. The government also approached the Supreme Court, seeking its ruling on the issue. Monday’s verdict was in response to that reference.
Having swept to power in a general election in 2018, the PTI stands to make the largest gains in the Senate if all national and provincial legislators vote along party lines.
The opposition, including the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz faction (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have been defending the need for a secret ballot in the run-up to the polls.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.