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As the election process swings into the next phase, in which appeals against decisions on candidates’ nominations will be filed until April 10 and decided upon by April 17, it is time to fix some of the errors that have been made over the last week. At least two serious kinds of anomalies have appeared in the rejection of candidates’ applications to contest elections so far. First, even where some candidates have not been convicted by a court, returning officers have seen fit to disqualify them. Barring a conviction under the law that clearly disqualifies a candidate, the mere institution of a case, or even several cases, against an individual should not be used to deny him or her the right to contest elections. The right to contest, and for voters to elect representatives they see fit, has to be established as a more sacrosanct right than the desire to keep individuals out of the electoral process simply because they are deemed unfit to represent the public.
Second, in some very high-profile instances, different returning officers reached opposite conclusions on nomination forms of the same individual. The fact that an individual can stand from multiple seats is a quirk of the Pakistani system that eventually needs to be ironed out but in the here and now, the onus is on returning officers to apply the law uniformly. The case of former president and dictator Pervez Musharraf illustrates both problems. He has not been convicted by any court yet for any crime — no matter how obvious his crime in suspending the constitution twice may be — and yet returning officers in Karachi, Kasur and Islamabad have disqualified him. Meanwhile, a returning officer in Chitral correctly observed that with no conviction against Musharraf yet, his papers were otherwise in order. Nisar Ali Khan, the
PML-N leader from Rawalpindi, has an even more peculiar distinction: he was declared qualified to run and also disqualified to run for office by separate returning officers in adjoining constituencies in the same city.
These, and other, problems that manifested themselves during the initial scrutiny period are largely rooted in the lack of clear directions to the returning officers, and even contradictory advice from various institutions. One way to look at it is as the teething problems of a nascent democracy, while the less charitable view is that there was a deliberate attempt to queer the electoral pitch by anti-democratic forces. It is time for the appeals process to right the several wrongs committed.