Pakistan election panel seeks change in law guiding its powers

In letter to parliament, ECP chief says ‘judicial overbearing’ has ‘diluted the writ’ of the panel in holding free and fair elections.

Pakistani election staff empty the ballot boxes to start counting following polls closed at a polling station for the parliamentary elections in Islamabad, Pakistan
Pakistani election staff empty the ballot boxes after polls closed at a polling station in Islamabad [File: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s election panel is seeking a legislative amendment to remove the president’s role in deciding the dates for general polls amid a continuing political crisis in the country.

Sikandar Sultan Raja, the head of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), on Monday sent a five-page letter to the National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, requesting the amendment to the law guiding the panel’s powers.

The suggested amendment says the ECP wants to be the sole authority to announce or change election schedules without any political interference.

“The role of the president to appoint a date for poll in case of dissolution of the National Assembly on the advice of the prime minister, or the dissolution of the National Assembly on expiry of the term, is not supported by any constitutional provision,” the letter says.

The poll panel’s move was triggered by President Arif Alvi in February unilaterally announcing election dates in two provinces, a decision that was slammed by the government as well as legal experts.

Alvi belongs to the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, headed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In January this year, Khan had the legislative assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces dissolved as part of his gambit to force early national elections, otherwise scheduled in October this year.

Both provinces were governed by the PTI.

According to Pakistan’s constitution, elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of a legislative assembly.

But the ECP continued to dither on announcing new elections in the two provinces, citing financial constraints and security concerns.

That forced the PTI to move the Supreme Court, which last week ordered the poll panel to hold elections in Punjab on May 14.

Meanwhile, the government, which the PTI accuses of trying to delay the crucial polls, on Monday presented a finance bill in parliament, seeking its approval to disburse money for the voting exercises.

ECP chief Raja’s letter to the parliament questioned a “judicial overbearing which have diluted the writ” of the panel in holding free and fair elections.

“In such a situation where the ECP writ has been time and again perceptibly compromised, the question arises whether the ECP can perform its bedrock duty to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections to the best of its ability in the given environment,” it said.

Lahore-based constitutional expert Reza Ali told Al Jazeera the ECP letter was a reasonable attempt by the panel to reclaim its constitutional space.

“I do agree that the president had no power to announce the date of the elections. But what I am sceptical about is whether any of the proposed amendments give the ECP the power to override constitutional provisions, such as holding elections in 90 days, under the pretext of a non-conducive environment,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera