In an attempt to make upcoming polls more credible, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has once again approached chief justices of the high courts to provide services of the lower judiciary to supervise next elections as returning offers (ROs).
The ECP believes that judges of the lower judiciary will be the best option to perform the core duty of ROs in order to maintain impartiality of the exercise, sources in the authority say.
The Elections Act 2017, provides the ECP three options: it can hire services of lower judiciary, it can utilise bureaucrats, and it can use its own staff as district returning officers (DROs) and the ROs for polls duties.
After the changes made in the previous law, now there will be a separate RO for every National Assembly and provincial legislature’s constituency.
There are a total of 849 constituencies where direct elections are held: 577 provincial assembly seats and 272 National Assembly seats.
Before enactment of the Elections Act 2017, one returning officer for a National Assembly constituency used to supervise polls in all the provincial assembly constituencies that fell under the NA constituency.
According to the new law, the ECP will need at least 849 ROs.
The ECP is awaiting reply from the chief justices of the high courts.
It is likely that these chief justices will put the matter before national judicial policy-making committee before deciding.
Already short of staff, the ECP has already compiled a list of civil servants – mostly bureaucrats of district management group – for election duties as DROs and ROs, as alternative.
It intends to utilise their services in case judiciary declines the ECP’s request.
The ECP does not have more than 400 staffers of its own in the officers’ category.
These include officers working at its headquarters, provincial and district chapters.
It has been deputing its own offices as ROs in the by-polls.
The ECP says that in case it has to deputise all or most of these officers as ROs, a myriad of tasks including administrative work associated with the elections will be hampered.
The ECP recently compiled a list of civil servants and their subordinates in 136 districts across the country for using them as ROs in the next election.
However, the ECP officials say it is common perception that bureaucracy has become politicised.
“Everyone knows how postings and transfers of civil servants are made. No one will be ready to believe in their impartiality if these people would work as ROs,” an official said.
In 2009, the higher judiciary, through the National Judicial Policy, decided not to spare any judge for election duty.
Before the 2013 general elections, the ECP and political parties had requested the then-chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry to relax the policy, which he did.
After the elections, however, most political parties started criticising the ROs.
The ECP officials said that once they get a response from the judiciary, the ECP might call a meeting of mainstream political parties to take them on board before taking a final decision to deputise judicial officers or civil servants as the ROs in general elections due by end of July this year.