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Senate Polls: Free And Fair Elections Versus Secrecy

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Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the aftermath of his defeat in the recent Senate elections, made an inimical statement while addressing the Election Commission of Pakistan: “You have damaged our democracy by holding the Senate Elections through secret ballot”.

This statement on its own is contradictory as the right to suffrage is a foundational right of every citizen in a democracy and any limitation over such a right reeks of injustice. Thus, the question begs itself i.e. can a right to vote be subject to limitation where a citizen has to disclose his identity while voting and thus lose the sanctity of freedom of freely voting for anyone he wishes to vote for? Or is democracy merely a farce? Before we move forward, let’s delve into the recent unsurprising yet controversial judgment of the Supreme Court over this matter.

In a landmark judgment by a 5 member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, it was ultimately declared that all elections need to be free and fair, which makes sense. However, the Supreme Court also stated that secrecy while voting, meaning the identity of the voter kept secret, is not absolute.

The Supreme Court in its judgment instead of laying down a new precedent, quoted an archaic 1967 Supreme Court judgment which states that because of a possible existence of corrupt election officers who can technically cancel votes as they are non-identifiable by putting them in the challenged category, the right to secrecy of ballot ought not to be kept absolutely secret.

The Irony of the judgment is that as per application of Article 226 of our Constitution which states “All elections, other than of the Prime Minister and Chief Minister, shall be held by secret ballot”, the Supreme Court judgment did state that Senate elections ought to be held as per the constitution but the bench went on to say that such secrecy is not absolute. In essence, what really transpired in the recent turn of events is that the Supreme Court was asked a simple question. But instead of choosing a single side, the judgment has chosen both sides of the same coin as legally accurate.

What’s even more ironic is that even though the ECP as per the Supreme Court judgment was directed to make identifiable ballots, the Commission chose not to do so on a somewhat legal plea of the shortage of time. Therefore, the senate elections took place as per the past practice, which according to the government was undemocratic, while the opposition considered it democratic.

Now, let’s move back to our original question: Can the right of suffrage be limited in a state of absolute democracy or not? In theory, as per the constitution, the right to suffrage cannot ever be curtailed as it would affect a voter’s freedom to vote for anyone he chooses to and not face backlash from the public for his/her choices. However, in practice, this is clearly not the case as the current Supreme Court judgment has opened a new chapter in the democratically tyrannical state of Pakistan and none of us can fathom where we are headed now but there is a trembling feeling that it is not a positive heading.

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Naya Daur