A new debate has started in Pakistan whether there should be early national elections while it seems that the next general polls may not be held in time. The only vociferous proponent of early elections is main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) while all other political parties have opposed premature polls. On the other hand the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has warned the government and the parliament that if a constitutional amendment is not made before November 10, 2017, to hold the next general elections according to the new census, the holding of elections as scheduled would not be possible. The debate has raised serious questions on the sustainability of democracy in Pakistan.
Insofar as the PTI demand to hold early national elections is concerned, this is an unjustified demand. At times one thinks that there is complete lack of political acumen within the ranks of the PTI. Nevertheless, if one looks at the demand of the PTI from the standpoint of the party, then the demand is comprehensible. The party wants to deny the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) getting a majority in the Senate of Pakistan. The next election for the Senate is due in March 2018, when half of the members of the Upper House of parliament would be retiring and in their place new members would be elected. At the moment, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has a majority in the 100-member Senate of Pakistan followed closely by the PML-N. The PTI also has sizable presence in the Senate thanks to its majority in the KP Assembly. The members of the Senate are elected by members of the provincial assemblies and in case of Islamabad and FATA members of the National Assembly form the Electoral College. At the moment the PPP has a majority in the Sindh Assembly, the PTI has a majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly while the PML-N has a majority in the Punjab and a slim majority in the Balochistan Assembly. Thus, the PML-N is all set to win most of the Senate seats from the Punjab and Balochistan. The PTI and the PPP would be returning their nominees as senators from the KP and Sindh, respectively. The PTI thus feared that even if the party may win a majority in the National Assembly in the next elections and may even form the federal government, the party would be short of a majority in the Upper House. This would seriously stunt the party’s ability and scope to legislate on key policy issues.
However, the PTI demand seems unjustified because preventing the PML-N government from completing its five-year constitutional tenure would create another political crisis in the country. The PML-N, whose founder Nawaz Sharif and three-time prime minister, who was ousted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the recommendation of the Joint Investigation Commission (JIT), which investigated the alleged corruption of Mr. Sharif, has already been arguing that his ouster is an “attack” on democracy. Early elections in any manner would give credence to the propaganda of the PML-N that undemocratic forces have been trying to derail democracy and the political system. Majority in the Upper House is not more important than having sustainable democracy in the country. The demand for early elections by the PTI suggests that all the allegations against the PTI of furthering the agenda of the establishment of the country are insubstantial. Because the establishment traditionally has tried its best that a political party should not be in a position to have a majority in both houses of parliament lest it would do whatever it wants in the domain of key policy decisions without any check on it. For instance, there is no doubt that in 1997, the PML-N was handed a two-thirds majority by the establishment, but when the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to have full control of every policy and institutions in the country, the powers-that-be sent his government packing, just before the next Senate elections. At that time, the PML-N had a two-thirds majority in the NA, but was short of the same in the Upper House. Mr. Sharif, as prime minister, was naïve enough to forget the lesson of history and has had to pay a heavy price by trying to effect fundamental changes in the country’s policy, this time around, particularly regarding relations with India. So the establishment would never like the PTI to win a majority in both houses of parliament and therefore the PTI demand for early elections so as to prevent the PML-N from getting a majority in the Senate, may be quite annoying for the powers-that-be.
But if early elections are against the spirit of democracy, delaying polls would be more damaging to the country and democracy. There have been rumours for the last several weeks that the PML-N and the PPP have been trying together to delay the elections. Although at the moment the plausible reason could be the lack of constitutional provision to hold elections on the basis of the census held early this year. But ultimately it would be the seasonal or weather factor which may be made a pretext to delay the elections. It must be mentioned here that the existing NA and provincial assemblies would be completing their five-year constitutional tenure in June 2018. Under the constitutional provisions, new elections to the NA and provincial assemblies must be held within three months or 90 days of the dissolution of the outgoing assemblies. Thus, according to the constitution, elections must be held before August 2018 or at the latest by 5 September, 2018. Around this time the weather is too hot for people to go to the polls and far more difficult for the political parties to carry out extensive electioneering. All the political parties must understand that delaying elections would necessitate the extending of the tenure of the caretaker set up. And as a caretaker setup has to be decided upon by the outgoing government and opposition in the NA and provincial assemblies, controversies would most likely to emerge. The situation in Pakistan is such that delaying elections cannot be conducive to the stability of the state.
Pakistani democracy is nascent and there are multiple threats to the democratic political system from within and without. There are already very strong demands from the non-political forces for establishing a government of technocrats. There is no provision of a technocratic set-up in the constitution. In other words, it is totally unconstitutional. In order to bring such a set up there could only be two ways; one to bring a constitutional amendment and the other through the intervention of the military. Presently, none of the political parties having representation in the NA and Senate has any favourable tilt towards a technocratic set-up for obvious reasons. A technocratic set up through the intervention of the military would be to all intents and purposes a martial law and one thinks that the present military leadership is mature enough that it will not exercise that option. Pakistan critically needs democracy, and for a strong democracy the need is a sustainable political system which would allow a democratic culture to evolve.