The Chairman, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), has kicked up a row with the Supreme Court by saying that its order barring the holding of by-elections on the basis of existing voter lists was “unconstitutional”. Chairman Justice (retd) Hamid Mirza maintained that the ECP was an independent body and was completely autonomous in taking any decision regarding electoral rolls. However, by adding that, “Every organ of the State should act within its limits,” Justice Mirza seems to be putting forward the same argument that the government and political parties allied to it are in the habit of using when confronted with the question of not complying with the apex court’s verdicts. It seems that the ECP has missed the underlying point in the SC’s order. The court had asked it to prepare up-to-date electoral rolls on the ground that the present lists contain a whopping 37 million bogus voters, and had ruled that any elections held on the basis of these lists could not meet the constitutional requirements that stipulate ‘the elections should be conducted honestly, fairly and justly in accordance with the law’. The deadline of February 23 for readying the new electoral rolls should not have elicited any suggestion for their postponing. In reality, the ECP had itself committed to bring these lists up to date by last December. That deadline was later extended to February 23. Thus, reacting to the ECP Chairman’s remarks, the Supreme Court said that they were not based on facts.

Justice Mirza made these observations during the course of a meeting between political parties and the ECP management held on Monday to discuss the preparation of new electoral rolls and the holding of by-elections. Secretary ECP Ishtiak Ahmed Khan seems to have gone out of the way to politicise the issue, by saying “people and political parties stand by the ECP the same way as they stand by the apex court”. He said that 11 out of the 14 parties were in favour of shifting the final date for electoral lists to May 25. Nevertheless, the mainstream party PML-N, the fast growing PTI and Jama’at-e-Islami remain opposed to the postponement. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is of the view that flawless lists should be ready sooner than later to have “transparent elections”.

No one would question the independence and autonomous nature of the Election Commission, but the overarching position of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution must not be challenged either. Instead of entering into a controversy with the SC, the ECP should have employed the required number of staff to expedite and prepare the lists by February 23 so that the by-elections which would fall due by that date as well as the general elections if called earlier could be held on the basis of accurate electoral rolls. After all, the ECP is obliged under the rules to update these rolls every year. It might as well avoid further vitiating the already existing unsavoury climate of clash of institutions.