Elections 2024: In Search Of Level Playing Field

With elections all but certain to take place, political parties point to the very serious issue of a lack of a level playing field for all parties, raising questions on the overall credibility of the elections whenever they are held

Elections 2024: In Search Of Level Playing Field

With the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) finally announcing a date for general elections and addressing a major concern of all major political parties, albeit on the intervention of the Supreme Court, the parties have pointed to a potentially even bigger issue: the absence of a 'level playing field' for all parties ahead of the upcoming elections, warning that if the stakeholders do not remain neutral, they will be unable to ensure truly free, fair and transparent elections in the country.

But what is a level playing field?

If you ask the various parties, you will hear various versions of what it means to have a level playing field. For some, it is being provided the same access as other parties; for some, it is not giving additional facilities to some parties; for others, it means neutral polling staff. Still, others do not wish for the state apparatus to be used as a weapon against their party.

Allegations of ‘pre-poll rigging’ are not new in Pakistan. Almost all former opposition parties blamed the ruling party for indulging in it directly or indirectly. 

Ahead of the 2024 elections, two major political forces, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), have alleged that, unlike one party, they are not being provided a 'level playing field' by the powers that be.

For months, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has lamented the lack of a level playing field for political parties campaigning for the upcoming general elections, demanding that the "old way" of running the country change. 
Curiously, the party the PPP directs its accusations to was a key coalition partner just months ago. The PPP served for 16 months in the cabinet of a PML-N prime minister in a rainbow coalition that comprised several opposition parties who had together ousted the PTI from power.

Bilawal believes that only one party is being facilitated for the upcoming polls as the remaining parties are subjected to pre-poll rigging.

PPP Secretary-General former senator Syed Nayyar Hussain Bukhari told The Friday Times that the unavailability of a level playing field for some parties in the upcoming elections was a concern for major political parties.
"The welcome granted to a political leader, biometric arrangements at the airport, and other facilities are all examples of providing extra care to one party,” Bukhari said, referring to the 'facilitation' extended to the former prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif who returned to the country after spending four years in self-exile.

Further, Bukhari pointed to the approval of development funds for PML-N, targeted transfers and postings on key posts, among other facilitations extended as examples of providing extra care for any party.

"These tactics have made the elections controversial," he said, adding that these 'arrangements and experiments' were also practised in the past but never proved fruitful.
The PPP secretary general claimed that other political parties have also expressed similar concerns.

The PTI, which finds its top leadership -- including its chairman -- either imprisoned or spread over two splinter groups or simply forced to sit and watch quietly from the sidelines, said there was clearly no level playing field. 

President Arif Alvi, a founding member of the PTI and who was elected to the National Assembly on a PTI ticket before being elected as President, conveyed concerns of PTI concerns regarding the "erosion of fundamental rights" and unavailability of a level-playing field for all political parties to Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar.

The President did so by forwarding a letter penned by PTI General Secretary Omar Ayub Khan, containing concerns of the former ruling party.

He maintained that many people were being victimised for their political association or loyalties, or their political associations or loyalties were being forcibly overturned.

"The issue became sensitive when female political workers were also subjected to prolonged detentions or frequent rearrests after obtaining relief from the court," he mentioned in the letter. He also referred to Article 4 of the Constitution about the "inalienable right of every citizen" to be treated in accordance with the law and Article 17 about the citizen's "right to form associations and/or be a member of a political party".

Furthermore, he said that Article 19 of the Constitution states that every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press.

Talking to [The Friday Times], PTI Leader Advocate Shoaib Shaheen said that at the moment, many members of their party were not comfortable in contesting the upcoming polls given the stifling environment exisitng for their party.

"What to talk about level playing field...PTI is not being provided any field to contest the polls," he complained. 

He said the PTI is not even granted permission to hold small ‘corner meetings’ as part of their election campaign. 

"Party workers are unable to arrange a public meeting as a part of their election campaign," he remarked.

This complaint is echoed further afield as well.

Jamaat-e-Islami's Information Secretary Qaiser Sharif told [The Friday Times] that no level playing field was available for parties.

"There is a general impression that one party is getting extraordinary privilege and preference," he stated without naming any political party. 

He said that the three main institutions that run the country and the polls, the establishment, the judiciary and the election commission, must all play a 'neutral' role.

"The extraordinary preference for one party is basically ignorance of others.. this is, in simple words, a level playing field for one party," he commented.

Zahid Malik, a senior leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P), who has previously raised the issue of the level playing field but in a different context, reiterated to The Friday Times that they have registered their concerns with the ECP about deputing impartial staff on the election day.

He added that the MQM-P has concerns about the PPP in Sindh, given how it has been in power for a long time in the province. He said they want 'neutral' staff to be deputed during elections.

"A level playing field is the right of all political parties," Malik said, adding that they discussed this with PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif in their recent meeting," he said.

The southwestern province of Balochistan had a different view about the level playing field.

Balochistan National Party (BNP) Chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal lamented that a level playing field has never been available for political parties, specifically in Balochistan.

"[Holding] free and fair elections would be a miracle, I suppose," the BNP chief said, who has recently launched a movement against alleged state excesses. 

Mengal, who had written a thorny letter of protest to Nawaz Sharif shortly after the coalition government announced that Anwaarul Haq Kakar of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) had been finalised as the caretaker prime minister, claimed that the incumbent caretaker setup was playing a role of an undertaker.

"This is the first caretaker government which is introducing bills in Senate, delivering speeches at the United Nations (UN), signing agreements, etc.," he pointed out, adding that they wish for a level playing field in the country, not just during the polls, but before they take place as well.

It is now up to the ECP and the varying arms of the state to ensure they match the expectations of the political parties when it comes to ensuring a level playing field.