ISLAMABAD  – With the next general elections looming large and the future of Pakistan centered on it, all eyes are fixed on the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and how smoothly it conducts them.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent and non-profit group committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, has cautioned that a weak and unreformed election body would raise the risk of rigged elections with the propensity to derail the fledgling democracy of Pakistan.

“A weak and unreformed ECP would raise the risk of flawed elections that the military might use as justification to derail the democratic process, paving the way for yet another indefinite period of unaccountable rule and destabilizing a fragile polity,” said the latest report of the ICG on election reforms in Pakistan.

The hotly anticipated elections are due when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition government completes its five-year term in March 2013, or earlier if it so decides. Emphasizing over the reforms in ECP, the report said that the stability of Pakistan’s democratic transition will depend, to a considerable extent, on the manner in which the election body conducts the next general elections, adding that, “change through the ballot box and reforms in the ECP and not through the military or the courts, is vital.”

Recalling the country’s chequered history, the report noted that “rigged elections and distortions of the democratic process by military regimes or military-controlled governments have left the ECP in an advanced state of institutional decay.” It further stated that, “If the next elections are to result in the smooth transition of power from one elected government to another and be widely perceived as legitimate and democratic by all stakeholders, it is imperative that the ECP be truly independent, impartial and effective.”

The ICG added that the ECP was facing several challenges, including insecurity, particularly in the tribal borderlands, the declining writ of the state, and the participation of more than 84 million registered voters in the elections.

In the interests of democratic consolidation, the PPP and its main parliamentary opposition, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), should put aside their political differences and focus on empowering the ECP, the report added.

It further said that the ruling party and the political opposition [within and outside parliament] must cooperate to ensure that the ECP’s amended code of conduct, based on the Supreme Court’s directives, does not curb legitimate political activity and disenfranchise voters.

The report noted that relations between the PPP and opposition are edgy to say the least, but after the appointment of Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, “they now face the urgent task of reaching a consensus on the appointment of an impartial caretaker government in the centre and the provinces. The longer this is delayed, the greater the prospects of the electoral process, and even the democratic transition, coming to a halt.”

However, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, as the government and opposition have recently exchanged proposals for the next caretaker government through informal channels and are likely to hold formal meetings over the subject after Eidul Fitr.

On August 14, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf invited the opposition for consultation talks over the caretaker government for a smooth transition, however, the opposition, had discarded the proposal. Leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry

Nisar Ali Khan stated in clear terms that the opposition was not in contact with the government over the next general elections. He even ruled out the possibility of his party’s negotiations with the PPP in the near future.