Thursday April 25, 2024

To the hustings — or not?

By Editorial Board
February 08, 2023

The fate of the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems a bit dodgy judging by media reports, rumours around the capital, and some statements by PML-N leaders. For example, PML-N leader Khawaja Saad Rafique has recently said that general elections should be held across the country at the same time and that it is not possible to hold elections for provincial assemblies and National Assembly separately. The reason: Pakistan's precarious financial situation. Both the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies were dissolved last month, and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had suggested elections in Punjab between April 9 and April 13 while elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between April 15 and April 17. Even before the dissolution of the assemblies, the idea was that the PDM government would not be too enthusiastic about conducting elections in the provinces within the constitutionally-stipulated 90 days after the dissolution. To add further credence to the scepticism, now governors of both provinces have reportedly declined to give a date to the ECP for elections. Some PDM leaders are justifying the delay by citing Article 254 which says: “When any act or thing is required by the constitution to be done within a particular period and it is not done within that period, the doing of the act or thing shall not be invalid or otherwise ineffective by reason only that it was not done within that period.” However, several constitutional and legal experts are of the opinion that this does not mean that elections can be delayed. If that were the case, the 90-day provision would be rendered obsolete in any case.

The PDM government may want to delay the elections in these two provinces given the economic situation but -- as constitutional experts have pointed out -- that is just no excuse. Elections should be held on time, regardless of the politics around them. Any delay will lead to more political uncertainty and is a question mark on the democratic pretensions of the centre. Perhaps the APC called by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif can resolve this issue -- if all political parties attend and not just forge a consensus on terrorism but also the economy and election reforms. Taking unilateral steps to delay elections is a bad idea. When parties out of power wax eloquently about constitutionalism but shy away from these principles when in power, how is their rhetoric about democracy ever going to resonate with their constituents? Whether it is the PTI invoking Article 5 when the vote of no-confidence should have taken place or the PDM government trying to delay elections, do our political parties only see the constitution as a handy weapon whenever they are out of power -- or favour?

Compounding all the uncertainty is the fate of some of the opposition politicians, with musings about 'important arrests' doing the rounds for some time now. In this regard, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s close aide and Punjab Assembly Secretary Muhammad Khan Bhatti's arrest from Sindh is instructive. Political observers say that these measures were rather expected and that this was perhaps what Elahi had in mind when he had advised Imran Khan not to dissolve the assemblies as it would take their ‘protection’ away. Now the only way these issues can be resolved is if all political parties finally learn to engage with each other, bring forth their reservations, formulate policies and build a consensus on how to go forward without any political victimization or abusive sloganeering. If the political class keeps up with this tit-for-tat response, they will only be damaging their own interests and willingly handing over power to power structures outside the political realm. Surely, they can't want that?