The election rigging allegations made by PTI, almost immediately after the 2013 General Elections, have been met with their fair share of ridicule and mockery. PTI has been called (not without justification) an irresponsible party for attempting to use brute (street) force to oust a democratic government, and for carrying out a dharna that lasted for several months, and cost human lives. The entire nation, for the period between August to December 2014, had come to a virtual standstill, amidst the daily media frenzy of covering the latest happenings at the PTI dharna. There was music, dancing, fiery speeches, along with back-channel negotiations with government and establishment representatives.
And then, just as the crowds started to dwindle, like they always do in such long drawn-out political spectacles, a national tragedy of unprecedented proportions struck the nation in Peshawar. In the face of irresistible public pressure, and with no real hope of the dharna achieving its stated objectives of toppling the government, PTI leadership decided to end the dharna and focus, instead on making KPK a safer (and better governed) Province.
All the while, however, the PTI leadership continued with its efforts to achieve some form of a politico-judicial resolution to its election rigging allegations. With the dharna having come to an end, and public opinion having shifted to other issues of (graver) national importance, PTI dropped its demand for an immediate resignation of the political leadership, and instead insisted on the formation of a Judicial Commission for the probe of election rigging allegations.
This unrelenting demand of PTI, acceded to by the government, resulted in the passing of the General Elections 2013 Inquiry Commission Ordinance, 2015, with the specific mandate to investigate whether “systematic” rigging had taken place in the 2013 General Elections. And, if so, who was responsible for, or involved in, such rigging.
Despite PTI’s rhetoric, popular opinion considered this to be a victory for the government, as opposed to PTI. Legal experts explained how ‘hard’ it would be for the Judicial Commission to conclude that “systematic” or “planned” rigging at taken place in the 2013 General Elections. Showing instances of rigging or illegal practices in individual constituencies may not be a problem. But such individual occurrences are not the issue before the Judicial Commission, unless the same can be linked together as part of some overall planned exercise. Harder still would be the task of assigning blame for “systematic” rigging, especially in light of the fact that PTI alleges former members of the judiciary (including Chief Justice (retd.) Iftikhar Chaudhary) to have played a pivotal role in the process.
This politico-constitutional puzzle suffered another ripple on Monday when, Faisalabad Election Tribunal judge, Javaid Rashid Mehboobi, declared the 2013 General Elections in NA-125 and PP-155 to be null and void, suffering from grave illegalities, fake votes, and material violations of the law (read: election rigging), and thus ordered that fresh elections be held, within 60 days, in the said constituencies.
Notably, in an 80-page judgment, while discussing NADRA’s report and recounting the details of bogus votes, unverifiable thumb impressions, casting of additional ballots, over-counting, incorrect Form 14s, and incomplete Form 15s, the honorable Election Tribunal observed (and emphasized) how the Presiding Officers (PO) and the Returning Officer (RO) in NA-125 and PP-155 had not performed their responsibilities, in accordance with the law.
This observation of the Election Tribunal (while being used by Mr. Saad Rafique to claim that the judgment has been rendered against the POs and the RO, and not against the candidates themselves) is a damning conclusion for PML(N), when viewed through the lens of the ongoing Judicial Commission proceedings. If it is in fact true, as observed in the Election Tribunal’s judgment, that the ROs and the POs did not discharged their duties, as required by the law, then it is only natural to ask: why did they shirk away from their legal obligations and, in the process, commit ‘illegal practices’ as envisioned in the election laws? What did they stand to gain from it? Were they working on their own accord (which is unlikely)? Or did they have specific instructions from some place? Could these instructions be from the interim government (Najam Sethi & Co.)? Or from the Election Commission? Or, as is being claimed by PTI, from members of the superior judiciary? Is it not relevant, in the circumstances, to take a closer look at why district judges were appointed ROs in the election? Why Iftikhar Chaudhary addressed the ROs in the run-up to the elections? Why did the then Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court (allegedly) establish an election-monitoring cell? Why did representatives of the Election Commission claim that the ROs were not working under their command, and were instead (perhaps) under the direct influence of superior court judges?
In light of the judgment of the Election Tribunal, these, and other questions, have gained even more importance in the context of the Judicial Commission. Specific allegations made against the POs and the RO, in the Election Tribunal judgment, will require a careful observation of members of the Judicial Commission. It will no longer be sufficient for the Judicial Commission report to simply dismiss allegations of corrupt practices in the 2013 General Elections, once proved, as being isolated instances. The Commission needs to explain the role of the ROs in the process, and while doing so, keep in mind the judgment rendered in the NA-125 case.
In many ways, this is perhaps one of the toughest challenges faced by the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan, who is also head of the Judicial Commission. Not because of the political fallout that might result from the inquiry report of the Judicial Commission; but instead because, for the first time, a Judicial Commission is being blatantly asked to investigate and hold responsible its own members (past and present) for tinkering with the most sacred of democratic process: the elections. And how aggressively the Judicial Commission chooses to carry out this internal reform process, at least for former members of the honorable Court, will be an unprecedented test of its mettle.
As we hold our breath, and wait for the Judicial Commission to complete its proceedings, let us say a prayer for Pakistan. Let us pray that the Judicial Commission will choose to protect (and disinfect) our democratic process, even if this exercise entails finding culprits within.