The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Wednesday issued its third issue of Elections Watch, covering November 2023, shedding light on some concerns with the electoral process as the country gears up for polls on Feb. 8, 2024.
Acknowledging that some of the uncertainty concerning the conduct of polls had come to an end with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announcing Feb. 8, 2024 as the date for the general elections, the HRCP warned rumors of another delay had yet to abate. This view, it noted, was bolstered by a “lackluster” pre-election environment, especially as various groups are touting multiple parties as the next “king’s party” that has been “selected” to form the next government. “This will undermine the small democratic gains that Pakistan has taken decades to make,” it warned.
Noting freedom of assembly and expression remained curtailed last month, the HRCP pointed out that party leaders were prevented from campaigning, political leaders were arrested and rearrested, some were forcibly disappeared and others prevented from attending protests. “While the events of May 9 were the key context for these rights violations, parties other than the PTI were also subjected to such curbs,” it said, adding the gender gap in the electoral rolls was also concerning, as millions of women voters were still ‘missing’ without proper voter registration.
The HRCP also noted the ECP’s directions to the PTI to hold intra-party elections if it wanted to retain its electoral symbol of a cricket bat, adding that the party struggled to elect a new chairperson, highlighting the rifts within that have expanded following the incarceration of Imran Khan.
Referring to persistent security issues—which have taken on greater urgency with some political leaders questioning how elections can be conducted in this environment—in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the HRCP also pointed to alleged extrajudicial killings in Turbat that have triggered mass protests as additional causes for concern.
The HRCP also noted the renewed debate on the possible rollback of the 18th Amendment as well as the National Finance Commission formula—a position articulated previously by the military establishment—while acknowledging that the PMLN has denied any such plans.
Referring to last month’s Senate resolution in support of military courts, the HRCP sounded a positive note on all major political parties putting aside their differences to protest it, citing lack of quorum. The human rights body, however, was less positive about the military trials of two former Army officers—no longer in Pakistan—who were sentenced to jail in absentia for “inciting sedition” despite a Supreme Court judgment declaring the military trial of civilians unconstitutional. This suggests inconsistencies remain on the application of the judgment, which must be addressed.
With roughly three months left till the elections, such issues are expected to increase, with the ECP and the caretaker governments required to overcome them to ensure free and fair polls.