This article was published in Dawn News on Nov 26, 2023, at the following link
The Election Commission of Pakistan recently declared the intra-party elections held by the PTI on June 10, 2022, to be invalid because the party, according to the ECP order, “failed to hold, transparent, just and fair intra-party elections”. The ECP, in the same order, branded the election “highly disputed/objectionable which could not be accepted at all”. In fact, the order even disputed the PTI’s claim of holding intra-party election.
The ECP order is unprecedented on many counts. It is difficult to recall the ECP ever declaring any intra-party poll invalid in the past, though most such elections, especially by large mainstream parties, are conducted as a mere formality, without fulfilling even the basic electoral requirement. The order is also unprecedented for its detailed scrutiny of the PTI constitution and its amendments.
The question is whether this order is meant to zero in on a single political party ahead of the general election, as is being alleged by PTI officials and party sympathisers, or whether a new paradigm has been established within the Commission and all political parties will have to undergo similar scrutiny in the future. Another related question is whether this scrutiny is limited to intra-party elections or can extend to other documents submitted by political parties, individual candidates and elected legislators relating to their finances — such as election expenses returns, statements of assets and liabilities and annual statements of audited accounts by all enlisted political parties.
After reading the 12-page order of the ECP announced on Nov 23, one gets the distinct impression that the level of scrutiny applied to PTI documents has never been witnessed before. The order retraces the history of PTI constitutions and the amendments in some detail. When PTI office-bearers completed their terms of office on June 13, 2021, the party had a comprehensive 105-page constitution (2019). According to the ECP order, two key amendments were made ahead of the intra-party election. One, the electoral college was changed from all party members to national council members, and two, the procedure of casting the votes was changed from secret ballot to a show of hands. Not only did the ECP object that these amendments were not made according to the party’s constitution, it also questioned whether a national council even existed at that time as its term had expired long ago. The PTI, at that point, presented a new 30-page constitution (2022), which the ECP found unacceptable in the context of intra-party elections.
The ECP order pointed to the documents required from a political party while submitting intra-party results to the Commission within seven days of holding elections. The documents ranged from a certificate (ECP’s Form 65) signed by the party head or his designated representative to the names, designations, addresses and terms of elected office-bearers, along with the votes obtained by each.
If the party constitution is amended, the ECP requires a copy of the resolution passed by the competent party institution, along with the names and copies of the CNICs of the members who attended the meeting. The party is also required to submit the amended constitution, with each page signed and stamped by the party head. These requirements are stipulated in Chapter IX of the Elections Act, 2017, and Chapter XI of the Election Rules, 2017. The ECP order stated that despite repeated reminders, the PTI did not submit the required documents. It is unlikely that most political parties are even aware of all these intricate details.
Until recently, the ECP was not properly organised, staffed or equipped to make sure that all legal requirements were fulfilled by the political parties and that all documents submitted by them were properly scrutinised. As a close observer of the election scene, one can say that the ECP has revamped its political finance wing over the past two years. This wing has designed and developed customised software, in addition to the development of a political finance database management system.
The name of the political finance wing may be deceptive as it is responsible for a much broader portfolio of duties, including acting as a repository of parties’ constitutions, scrutiny of all amendments to party constitutions, and the monitoring of intra-party elections against the requirements of Elections Act, 2017. It also deals with the allocation of party symbols in each general election.
Although the latest ECP action may appear to be PTI-specific, the electoral watchdog’s future actions may surprise all 168 enlisted parties, especially the larger ones, whose documents are generally not updated, who conduct intra-party elections as a mere formality, and whose financial records are not properly maintained or audited statements of accounts generally have key information gaps.
With the ECP’s newfound prowess, as demonstrated through the detailed scrutiny of the PTI constitution and documents related to intra-party elections, the Commission seems ready to scrutinise the financial documents of individual candidates and political parties as well. With the polling date barely two months away and candidates scheduled to start submitting their nomination papers in the next three weeks, it is important for candidates to know that the statements of assets and liabilities and tax-related information to be submitted with the nomination forms may not go un-scrutinised this time as they did in most past instances.
The spending limit of candidates may also come under a powerful microscope this time. Although there is no spending limit for political parties in Elections Act, 2017, they are required to submit the complete details of funds received and spent on election campaign, along with the names and CNIC numbers of contributors. Back in 2018, PTI was perhaps the only party that submitted the required details regarding its electoral campaign. Most political parties got away with submitting only scanty information. However, chances are that they may be asked tough questions by the ECP in 2024.