FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 38

Palpable signs that elections will not be held on time

There is growing uncertainty in the country about when the next elections will be held. According to the Constitution, the Election Commission of Pakistan must hold elections within 90 days after the dissolution of the National Assembly whose five-year term expires on August 12. In the present case the polls must be held latest by November 12. But whether this process will be followed is in doubt because of contradictory statements emanating from the top echelons of the PML-N.

Questions in this connection have risen after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said he wants to see the elections held on the basis of the latest census, even though his allies do not agree with him. Clearly, a decision to use the new census now could push the election back by months. The perception is that many hidden factors are at play and it has created a sense of unease among the opposition parties.

This perception got further traction when Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar told the media a few days ago that it could take about four months to complete the processing of census results and draw new constituency boundaries. He said the decision was made at a meeting of the Council of Common Interest (CCI), which included representatives from federal and provincial governments. On the other hand, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that elections will require new delimitations of the constituencies based on the latest census figures, which would take about four extra months.

In this connection, it may be added here that the Constitution is clear that once the census result is approved, new delimitation has to take place, similar to what happened during the last census in 2017, according to which the 2018 polls were held. As per ECP laws, they require at least four months to implement new delimitations.

The evolving situation has caused concern among opposition leaders who fear that under the coming caretaker administration, the polls due by November may be pushed back by months. Interestingly, both the PML-N led federal government and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) have several times changed their declared positions on fresh delimitation, setting the stage for the next elections to be delayed beyond 2023, possibly up to mid-2024.

A senior ECP official, when asked about the commission’s position following the approval of final census results by the CCI, told the media that the commission was now legally bound to go for fresh delimitation, which would take at least four months. “It’s a constitutional requirement and we will have to do it,” he remarked. The details will be worked out by the commission in a meeting, which would be held after they received the official notification. Under Section 17(1) of the Elections Act, the commission is to delimit territorial constituencies for elections to the National Assembly, each Provincial Assembly and to the local governments and is to delimit constituencies afresh after each census that is officially published.

Another official said the commission will also be required to update electoral rolls and take other related steps, indicating that the entire exercise may be postponed until March or April of next year. This implies that like the situation in Punjab and KP, the incoming caretaker set-up at the Centre and in Sindh and Balochistan will also be installed for a longer term.

The reluctance of the government to hold elections on time is palpable. Last month, three federal ministers claimed that the official results of the digital census would not be notified and polls will be held on time. On July 26, when a bill to give greater powers to caretakers was passed at a joint sitting of the parliament, Minister for Economic Affairs Sardar Ayaz Sadiq had brushed aside the impression that there was any move to install caretakers for a longer time.

Earlier on July 20, key ECP officials had also ruled out any delay in general elections, saying that the polls would be held before October 11, if the national and two provincial assemblies were not dissolved before the expiry of their term on August 12. Speaking at a press conference, ECP Secretary Omar Hamid Khan had claimed the ECP was fully prepared to hold elections, be it within 60 days or 90 days. He also ruled out the possibility of fresh delimitation of constituencies prior to the electoral exercise and said elections would have to be held under the previous census and delimitation.

But the CCI meeting’s approval of the final census results has drastically altered the situation and given rise to many legal complications. For example, seats in the National Assembly are allocated to each province and federal territory on the basis of the population as per the last officially published census. This means that any alterations to the composition of the legislatures would require a constitutional amendment, which won’t be possible in the absence of the assembly. Even if the incumbent assembly were in session, its current strength is insufficient to pass an amendment to the Constitution, especially as PTI lawmakers are not present in the house. In a house of 342, at least 228 members’ assent is required to pass a constitutional amendment. The current assembly is clearly short of that number.

Another straw in the wind is the stand of the PPP on the coming polls. Federal Minister for Water Resources Syed Khursheed Shah of the PPP has said that the PPP would have to “take a stand” if general elections were delayed. It means everything is up in the air and nobody can predict when the next elections will be held.