he Election Commission of Pakistan is currently holding a systematic consultation with political parties over holding the next general election.
After President Arif Alvi had written to Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja inviting him to a meeting in which to set a date for the polls, the ECP as well as the Law Ministry had responded that the president was no longer empowered to do so (after the latest amendments made to electoral laws).
The ECP has since invited the political parties to share their positions on the issue. So far, the commission has held meetings with leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F).
So far, only the PTI, the JI and the PPP have demanded elections within 90 days. The rest of the parties want the polls to be held after fresh delimitations.
The recent developments have added to the confusion about the future of politics in the country.
There have been rumours recently about the possible arrest of several PPP leaders in already pending cases. In fact, the PPP’s campaign for holding polls within 90 days is being seen as a strong message to the powerful quarters in the wake of the latter’s increasing proximity to the PML-N. Now, the PPP and the PTI are on the same side on the issue of holding the next general elections.
According to PPP insiders and sources privy to recent developments in the power corridors, the PPP, which was very close at one point to bringing to its fold several PTI dissidents and electables from the Punjab, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, was prevented from doing that.
In the Punjab, the PPP leaders had been in contact with Jahangir Khan Tareen and other electables that had parted from the PTI. Former president Asif Ali Zardari had also met with Saeed Akbar Niwani, an electable from Bhakkar who had served in the Punjab cabinets led by the PPP in 1993, the PML-Q in 2002-2007 and the PML-N in 2013. However, the situation changed when the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP) was launched.
In the KP, the PPP leadership was in contact with Pervaiz Khattak, Mehmood Khan and several other PTI dissidents even before May 9. Khattak appeared interested in joining the PPP and bringing along several other leaders. However, he later announced the formation of the PTI-Parliamentarians.
In Balochistan, the PPP faced another setback after it had enticed several leaders from the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) such as former Balochistan chief minister Jam Kamal, Quddus Bizenjo and several others. It is said that Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul Haq Kakar was instrumental in bringing Jamal Kamal and his colleagues closer to the PML-N after meeting Maryam Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. It is believed that all this was done on instructions from powerful quarters.
By way of retaliation, the PPP not only demanded general elections within 90 days but also started protesting against the ‘high’ electricity tariffs and petrol prices.
Last week, the PPP called an extraordinary meeting of its Central Executive Committee. It was chaired jointly by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Asif Zardari. Chaudhry Aitezaz Ahsan was also present. PPP insiders say that Bilawal Bhutto had personally invited Ahsan to the meeting. Ahsan had reportedly requested Bilawal to be allowed to attend the meeting virtually but the latter had insisted that his physical presence was needed. During the meeting, some of the party leaders like Maula Bux Chandio had tried to take Ahsan to task for his statements that had been seen as pro-Imran but the PPP chairman had brushed these aside. He had then asked Aitezaz to explain the constitutional position on the timeframe for general elections. Aitezaz Ahsan is said to have told the meeting that despite the Council for Common Interest’s approval of the census and a need for delimitation of the constituencies, the elections had to be held within 90 days.
So far, only the PTI, the JI and the PPP have demanded elections within 90 days. The rest of the parties want the polls to be held after fresh delimitations. Recent developments have added to the existing confusion about the future of politics in the country.
After the meeting, PPP leaders Sherry Rehman, Nayyar Bukhari, former Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah and Shazia Marri addressed a joint press conference. They demanded that the ECP announce elections within the stipulated period. Murad Ali Shah said that he had approved the census results at the CCI meeting knowing that there would be no need for a fresh delimitation of the constituencies considering the number seats in the assemblies would not change. The PPP leaders stressed that a delay in the polls was not acceptable.
PPP insiders, privy to the CEC meeting’s proceedings, say that the PPP has decided to file a petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan if the ECP tries to delay the elections. Aitezaz Ahsan might argue the case on the party’s behalf.
Later, a PPP delegation called on the ECP officials and asked them to announce the election schedule immediately.
The ANP, another staunch supporter of the constitution and democracy, too, sent a delegation to the ECP. After the meeting, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, an ANP stalwart, told me that the ECP had affirmed elections could be held by mid-February 2024 and also expressed a commitment to expediting the delimitation process.
PPP Information Secretary Sherry Rehman has said, “The PPP is waiting for the ECP’s response to its meeting with the officials and would discuss the issue in the next CEC meeting to be held in Lahore.”
After the PPP leaders’ strongly-worded pressers and statements, rumours started appearing in the media that some of the top PPP leaders had been advised to leave the country. Some of the accountability complaints involving PPP leaders were reported to have been reopened.
On the other hand, some of the PML-N leaders, who before dissolution of the National Assembly had been saying that they would not tolerate a delay in the elections, have been silent recently. Former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif has managed to create an impression that he might be the establishment’s ‘man of choice’ even though there is still talk of his elder brother seeking the office of prime minister for a fourth time.
Former president Zardari, who is credited with converting the PPP’s popular politics into ‘power politics’ through his political acumen, may have to rethink his strategy. Once, pressed by some party colleagues to pursue more ideologically consistent politics, he had responded: “Now is not the time for ideological or street politics; it is time for power politics through powerful circles.”
The fact is that the ballot box prevails in the end. To various degrees, most of Pakistan’s elections have been engineered.
Talking to The News on Sunday, Munawar Anjum, the PPP media coordinator, said: “Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari is not facing any pending case. However, he may go to Dubai for a while to meet his daughter and grandchildren. He is not the kind to be scared or flee.”
To a question about the PPP-establishment relations, he said: “The PPP neither supports nor opposes the establishment. It supports democracy and the constitution and opposes those who try to undermine them.” The PPP’s recent moves and the ongoing crackdown against the PTI suggest that the two parties might come closer on the issue of elections.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher ofjournalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at BukhariMubasher