The imperative of elections for Pakistan’s national interest and political stability
After a prolonged period of uncertainty and hesitation by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the top election body finally announced on September 21 that national elections would take place in the last week of January 2024. However, the ECP refrained from specifying the exact polling date, citing various reasons for this omission. The primary issue revolves around the ongoing constitutional ambiguity and legal disputes regarding the authority responsible for announcing the election date—whether it falls under the purview of the President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi, or the ECP.
Constitutionally, it appears that the President is tasked with setting the election date. Nonetheless, the ECP disputes this presidential power. Consequently, Dr. Alvi has not officially announced a polling date, but he has communicated to the ECP that, constitutionally, elections must be held within 90 days, with this period ending on November 9, 2023. Consequently, President Alvi has urged the ECP to prepare for elections around November 8. Nevertheless, the exact polling date remains undisclosed due to complex behind-the-scenes developments involving both the President and the ECP.
Notably, the ECP’s announcement of holding national elections in the last month of January 2024 undeniably contravenes the constitutional provision mandating elections within 90 days of the dissolution of the National Assembly. The ECP argues that due to the need for fresh delimitations, it is not feasible to hold polls within the stipulated 90 days, necessitating a delay. The election week, set by the ECP as the last week of January 2024, extends almost two and a half months beyond the 90-day constitutional limit. Consequently, this issue is likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court, the highest constitutional court in the country.
Arguably, the most popular party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, strongly opposes the delay in holding elections beyond 90 days. In this context, the PTI has even requested President Alvi, who was a key leader of the PTI before assuming the presidency, to announce the polling day. However, after President Alvi’s inability to do so, the PTI has publicly criticized him. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has also recently joined the PTI in demanding that elections be held within the constitutionally mandated 90-day period.
Now, the constitutional and legal question facing all Pakistanis is whether general elections should indeed be conducted within 90 days or exceptions should be made. Simultaneously, the most pressing political question is whether national elections will proceed as announced by the ECP, albeit with a slight delay. It is crucial to inquire why the ECP and the 13-party ruling alliance took specific steps, such as convening a delayed Council of Common Interest (CCI) meeting to approve the latest national census results, necessitating fresh electoral district delimitation. Furthermore, why did the authorities wish to postpone elections when they are crucial for political stability and, in turn, economic stability in the country?
The answer is quite evident: the PTI enjoys significant popularity in the country, as demonstrated by its victories in all by-elections held over the past year. Consequently, early elections would likely result in a PTI victory. This prospect is undoubtedly unsettling for the PTI’s opponents and Mr. Khan’s critics. However, if elections are not held at all, it would be a catastrophic scenario not only for the PTI and Mr. Khan but also for all political forces and the entire country.
In light of this thesis, it becomes evident that holding elections is not just a necessity but also in the national interest. Ideally, elections conducted within the 90-day constitutional timeframe are the best scenario. However, if this ideal timeline cannot be met, it should not pose significant issues for the PTI or any other political parties if there is a slight delay of a couple of months. The international community, including major powers, international organizations, and donor agencies, also advocate for the early holding of national elections in the country. This is because free, fair, and transparent elections leading to the formation of a popular government are the only guarantee of stability and survival for the nation.
Considering the events of the last 18 months in Pakistan and the gross human rights violations, it is apparent that the upcoming elections may not be free, fair, or transparent. Nevertheless, Pakistan finds itself in a situation akin to a dead-end, and there seems to be no way out as long as the status quo of an absence of an elected, political, and representative government persists. To break free from this situation, even rigged elections may be the way forward. There should be no doubt that non-transparent and restricted elections could help alleviate the current suffocation and, more importantly, address the inflated egos of certain influential figures in the corridors of power.
For example, former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, have been demanding a “level-playing field” for their family and their party, PML-N. This implies holding elections in which they have a significant advantage, almost like a guaranteed victory. Although such a scenario would be challenging to achieve in the current circumstances, if the party were to come into power again, it could open a pathway for future political negotiations, which could be both beneficial and precarious for the country. Such a situation might compel all political parties and players to come together and agree on a way forward to govern the country democratically and normally. Thus, elections, even if delayed, could play a crucial role in initiating a political dialogue to address Pakistan’s multifaceted crises.
Furthermore, there is always the possibility that if the majority of Pakistanis demonstrate political maturity and actively participate in political campaigns leading up to Election Day, especially on the polling day itself, resulting in a voter turnout exceeding 75 percent, the derailed democracy could be set back on track. This would lay the foundation for resolving the country’s numerous crises.