Pakistan’s next general elections are scheduled to be held on July 25. But will they be held on time? This is the question now being widely asked in the country following some poll related developments over the past two weeks.
The issues that have given rise to the question relate to pending litigation on delimitations in a number of districts and introduction of new nomination papers in accordance with the parliament’s decision, a move the Election Commission of Pakistan has termed an encroachment on its jurisdiction.
As per past experience,a minimum of 25 days are needed to complete the process from filing of nomination papers to the display of final list of candidates. At least seven days are needed for filing of nomination papers, another seven days for scrutiny of papers, three days for filing appeals against the decision of ROs, seven days for deciding appeals by tribunals, one day for withdrawal of candidature and the display of final list the following day. This means that the final list of candidates should be displayed before or on June 30, to give 25 clear days for the conduct of the election campaign. The target can only be achieved if all the hurdles, including delimitations, nomination papers and placement of caretaker set-ups in the provinces, are overcome in time.
The Islamabad High Court, which is presently hearing the petitions challenging delimitation of constituencies, has so far declared delimitations of ten districts including Jhang, Jhelum, Toba Tek Singh, Lower Dir, Ghotki, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Kharan, Haripur and Bahawalpur as void. Once all the petitions challenging the matters relating to delimitation are decided by the Islamabad High Court, these cases are expected to be taken up before the Supreme Court by the Election Commission which is otherwise all prepared to hold elections on July 25.
The withdrawal of the names of caretaker chief ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has further darkened the electoral horizon. On the other hand, the Balochistan home minister, through a resolution in the provincial legislature, has sought delay in the elections for a month because of monsoons and the absence of a large number of Pakistanis from the country for performing Hajj. A few days ago, MQM’s Faisal Sabzwari came up with a similar demand seeking election postponement. His plea is that the general elections should be delayed till the third party audit of the 2017 census and the consequent delimitation of the constituencies.
While the voices from Quetta and Karachi sought delay in elections in an unambiguous manner, the PTI also contributed towards making the elections doubtful by its surprise decision of withdrawing the name of Nasir Khosa for the post of caretaker chief minister of Punjab. It may be recalled here that a few weeks ago, Imran Khan had talked of possible election delay due to complexities relating to delimitation of constituencies. Some time back, the army chief, too, expressed apprehensions that elections may be delayed for a month or two for the same reason.
A petition challenging the new nomination papers for the elections before the Lahore High Court has now been decided. The plea taken in the petition was that the forms had been approved by Parliament in violation of the prerogative of the ECP under the constitution. The petition asked for the restoration of the previous nomination paper which has now been done.
The ECP has faced severe criticism in the past for failing to handle delimitation and related issues in an efficient and transparent manner. The commission follows a pre-set formula for the number of Provincial and National Assembly seats that a district is allotted. However, the final mapping done by the ECP within the districts remains unclear and open to controversy.
Last week IHC, while annulled the delimitation of constituencies in Jhang, Jhelum, Toba Tek Singh and Lower Dir, reserved its judgment on five other districts namely, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Chakwal, Battagram and Haripur. In all, the IHC is hearing 108 petitions lodged against delimitation from Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. According to the petitioners, a fair political basis was not adopted for delimitation of constituencies and rules were bent in many cases to create artificial boundaries.
Elections in Pakistan have always been a controversial affair. After every election allegations fly about rigging, and results are challenged in the court. The upcoming elections are especially critical as tempers are high and parties have accused each other of resorting to pre-poll rigging and other unfair means. PML-N leaders have already expressed doubts about the fairness of the coming general elections.
In this charged atmosphere, the ECP will need to exercise extra care. It must move expeditiously to address the concerns of various parties regarding delimitation, acceptance and scrutiny of nomination papers and conduct of election campaigns. It should leave no stone unturned to ensure the elections are fair and transparent so that no party has any reason to complain later on.