Elections 2013: Civil society criticizes Returning Officers’ conduct

Islamabad – Some citizens, including intellectuals and human rights activists, from the twin cities issued a joint statement on Monday raising objections over the scrutiny of nomination papers by Returning Officers (ROs).

The statement expressed concern over the current electoral process undertaken by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which it termed was “unnecessarily led by the superior judiciary.”

“This process is not only unethical and undemocratic it is also unprecedented in the electoral history of the country,” the statement read.

The statement was signed by 42 individuals from Rawalpindi and Islamabad including writers, public policy experts, human rights workers, intellectuals and journalists. It termed questions asked from the candidates about their personal lives during the scrutiny process “a combination of ignorance and personal prejudices of the ROs”.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a political analyst, said the line of questioning taken by the ROs not only shows the mindset of the lower judiciary, it also comes across as an attempt to humiliate politicians.

“One has no problem if the question is about accountability, but they (the ROs) are going far beyond that,” Siddiqa said.

During the scrutiny of nomination papers, ROs have asked candidates about their marriages, honeymoons and effects of winning the elections on marital life. The Lahore High Court on Friday passed a judgment ordering ROs to refrain from asking random questions unrelated to the information in the nomination papers. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) requested the ROs not to ask irrelevant questions, following the judgment.

The statement issued by twin cities’ citizens also said there are clauses within Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution which leave room for manipulation by undemocratic forces. These clauses, related to a person’s faith and religious practices cannot be translated into legal and tangible questions to be posed to the candidates.

The statement also mentioned that the “Ideology of Pakistan”, which led to Ayaz Amir’s nomination papers being rejected, could be interpreted differently by different people.

Abid Hassan Minto, a leader of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), who has long fought for electoral reforms in the country, said one criticism on Articles 62 and 63 is that they are “open-ended” and contain “controversial issues” that cannot be made a basis of disqualification.

Regarding the Ideology of Pakistan issue, Minto said the constitution of Pakistan does not define ideology.

“When has anyone ever defined ideology?” he added. “How can you punish someone on the basis of something that has not been defined in law?”

But he said there were some positive outcomes from the electoral process as well. For example, people who have been convicted for defaulting on loans or for corruption on the basis of “regular, positive and admitted” evidence can now be disqualified.

Tahira Abdullah, a human rights campaigner, agreed with Minto.

“Scrutiny should focus only on tax evaders, loan defaulters and those declared corrupt by National Accountability Bureau,” Abdullah said.

But she said the ECP must come up with a code of conduct for the ROs. However, Abdullah said she saw the application of Articles 62 and 63 as a “concerted effort” by the retrogressive religious extremist elements to make the next parliament “an extremely right-wing parliament.”

The citizens’ statement endorsed the findings and recommendations of the 2012 annual report on status of human rights in Pakistan, released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) particularly the encroachment of judiciary on the legislative sovereignty of the parliament and the executive authority of the government.

Siddiqa said, “the political society of Pak should wake up to the threats to any laws being manipulated by the establishment.”


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