Well, that was awkward. After spending the better part of two years frothily denouncing the government, the ECP, the courts, NADRA, and every other person/institution not directly associated with his party, Imran Khan has conceded that the infamous claim he made about ’35 punctures’ – seats that were allegedly rigged by the caretaker administration in the Punjab during the 2013 elections – was nothing more than ‘political speech’. Conflicting statements coming from within the PTI about the veracity of the claim have only muddied the waters further although it is clear that this entire affair is one that has tarnished the reputation of the party and its leaders.

The falsity of the 35 punctures claim is not a trivial matter for several reasons. For one, it raises important questions about the tactics that have thus far been employed by the PTI in its quest for electoral accountability. Other than the fact that it severely undermines the credibility of the party’s allegations regarding misconduct in the 2013 polls, it also reinforces the belief that the PTI’s entire campaign these past two years is one that has been poorly conceived and executed. Notwithstanding the PTI’s disastrous and utterly unnecessary alignment with dubious political forces like the PAT, the party’s continued insistence that the ECP and its attendant institutions are working to protect the PML-N government is increasingly coming up against multiple reports and analyses, including some submitted to the Judicial Commission, that indicate how the PTI lacks the kind of robust evidence needed to prove its claims of systematic and widespread electoral rigging.

This is unfortunate because there is a strong case to be made for urgent reform of the ECP and the entire framework of electoral politics in Pakistan. As the proceedings of the Judicial Commission come to a close and the nation waits for its rulings, one thing that has emerged from this entire saga is the undeniable fact that elections in Pakistan are marred by incompetence and inefficiency, and that even in the absence of a ‘systematic’ attempt to manipulate polls, procedural and logistical constraints, coupled with the dynamics of local patron-client politics, certainly create the space for fraud and dishonesty. While it is ultimately the task of the Judicial Commission to determine whether or not the PML-N and its allies engineered an elaborate scheme through which to steal the 2013 elections, it would not be surprising to find that the absence of a master-plan did not preclude certain seats and constituencies from being subjected to malpractice. Indeed, that is exactly what has been found by the election tribunals that have overturned results in cases where credible evidence of rigging existed.

As such, in the absence of a concerted attempt to ensure that the ECP is transformed into an institution that has both the will and the capacity to discharge its responsibilities effectively, elections in Pakistan will continue to be marred by the uncertainty that has been seen these past two years. The best check on attempts to rig elections would be oversight exercised by a powerful, independent body possessing both the expertise, and the mandate, to carry out its work while remaining relatively impervious to the blandishments and sanctions coming from political actors at different levels. Even though the ECP that was constituted for the 2013 elections possessed greater independence than its predecessors, it still lacks the manpower and capacity to function in a fashion that is truly autonomous and impartial. An interesting and informative contrast can be made with the Election Commission of India, which manages to effectively oversee and conduct elections involving an even larger and, arguably, more rambunctious electorate than Pakistan’s. The difference lies in the degree to which the two ECs have been empowered to undertake their tasks.
By focusing almost exclusively on the alleged shenanigans of the PML-N, the PTI has missed an opportunity to push for a debate on the ECP itself and the ways in which it could be reformed to prevent repeats of what the party has claimed happened in 2013. As a party enjoying considerable popular support and a significant presence in parliament, the PTI could have taken the lead on proposing legislation that would have strengthened the ECP and substantively improved the quality of democracy in Pakistan. Instead, it chose a more confrontational path that has ultimately proven to be inconsequential.

The effects of this are already visible. As Punjab, Sindh, and Islamabad prepare to hold local government elections later this year, there is no evidence to suggest that any meaningful attempts have been made to redress the shortcomings, both deliberate and inadvertent, that led to irregularities in the 2013 elections. Once again, while the PTI continues to allege that the PML-N is engaged in systematic pre-poll rigging, it has done little in the way of pressing for constructive institutional changes that could ensure the polls are conducted in a more transparent and democratic manner.

Instead, the PTI remains mired in factional in-fighting, launching the occasional salvo at its opponents while struggling to get its own house in order. In a continuation of the schizophrenic strategy that saw it accommodate established (and often discredited) politicians in an attempt to gain electoral advantage in 2013, the PTI has opened its doors to defectors from other parties. In the absence of any concrete ideological positions, on the part of the party and those whose ambitions it now entertains, it would be reasonable to assume that the PTI’s politics is simply coming to reflect the same opportunistic trading of power, privilege, and position that characterises the other mainstream parties. Whatever else it might be, it seems increasingly clear that the PTI is not a party of change.