Pak court suspends election body’s appointing bureaucrats as Returning Officers for Feb 8 general elections

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Lahore, Dec 14: A top Pakistani court has suspended the election commission’s decision to appoint bureaucrats as Returning Officers (ROs) for the February 8 general elections, prompting a war of words between political parties, with two of them terming it as a “conspiracy” to postpone the polls.

Lahore High Court on Wednesday announced a reserved verdict on the plea challenging the Election Commission Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to appoint bureaucrats as Returning Officers (ROs) and District Returning Officers (DROs) from the executive while hearing a plea by former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Justice Ali Baqar Najafi of the Lahore High Court said that on factual grounds, “the apparent absence of a level playing field” for the political party of the petitioner (PTI) is visible to all and has also been seriously noted by many independent groups.

“With top political leadership locked inside the jail or gone underground, electioneering by his political party will be a big question mark,” the judge said referring to Khan and other PTI leaders, who have been in jail on different charges.

The judge further noted that the apprehension of the petitioner that the ECP may not hold free and fair polls appears to be well founded as ROs, DROs and Assistant Return ing Officers (AROs) are appointed from the presently posted members of the administration throughout the country “with whom the petitioner’s political party (PTI) does not inspire any confidence.”

“Undoubtedly, the holding of general elections costs this poor nation billions, which may be wasted if the election results are not accepted by major political parties,” Justice Najafi observed and referred the petition to the chief justice LHC to constitute a larger bench to decide the matter.

Following the High Court’s order, the ECP on Thursday stopped the training of the ROs, DROs, and AROs.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) criticised the decision even as the PTI reiterated that the powerful Pakistan Army is working according to what it termed as the London Plan’.

“This is a conspiracy of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to postpone the elections,” PML-N president and former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif said in a statement on Thursday.

He said the PTI went to the court with the intention to delay polls, as, in the 2018 elections it had made no objections to bureaucracy for performing the duties of ROs and DROs. “Now, if the elections are postponed, the PTI and its supremo Imran Khan will be solely responsible,” Shehbaz asserted.

PPP’s information secretary Faisal Karim Kundi said efforts are afoot to delay polls. “Conspiracies are being hatched to postpone polls,” he added.

The PTI has alleged that the military establishment wants sham elections to install its “puppet” Nawaz Sharif as prime minister under the ‘London Plan’.

In response to other parties’ allegations that PTI wants delay in polls, its secretary general Omar Ayub said on Thursday on X: “PTI’s stance is very clear. We demand the immediate announcement of the election schedule so that the general elections are held on 8th February 2024.”

“PTI demands that the ROs are from the judiciary because we do not trust the public servants to conduct free and fair elections given the recent track record of the biased illegal Caretaker Governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the equally biased Caretaker Federal, Baluchistan, and Sind Governments,” Ayub said.

He also said the ECP should not use the decision of the LHC to delay the announcement of the schedule.

“ECP has continuously proven that it is an appendage of the federal government and used every opportunity to harm PTI and ex-PM Imran Khan.

“As far as the statements of the other political parties are concerned and especially PMLN Shahbaz Sharif and JUI-F Maulana Fazala-ur-Rahman, they have consistently used a range of excuses ranging from global warming to snowfall and terrorism to delay the elections because they fear the wrath of the people of Pakistan due to the dismal performance of the PDM government,” he said.

Pakistan is headed to the general elections scheduled to be held on February 8. After ending his self-imposed four-year exile in London, Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan on October 21 and has been getting clean chits in case after case that was pending for many years.

On the other hand, Khan has been incarcerated in multiple cases since August this year and has been facing adverse decisions/judgments from various courts in Pakistan.

Sharif’s political opponents have claimed that he has been allowed to enter Pakistan after an arrangement with the top Army brass. The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled coup-prone Pakistan for more than half of its 75-plus years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in matters of security and foreign policy.

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