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Sunday April 21, 2024

Bad precedent

By Editorial Board
March 24, 2023

The surprising announcement by the Election Commission of Pakistan about the postponement of the upcoming elections in Punjab till October 8 has unsurprisingly led to condemnation by the PTI, with Imran Khan saying that the PTI had dissolved two provincial assemblies “with [the] expectation that elections would be held in 90 days” and not “to allow a bunch of fascists to impose a reign of terror”. The PTI is not alone in its criticism of the ECP’s decision. Most legal analysts, on either side of the political aisle, have categorically called the ECP’s reasoning weak and a clear violation of what has been stipulated in the constitution. While the PTI and legal and political observers are justified in their scathing critique of this decision, there is another point of view that says that the ECP may just be constrained by things that are not in its control. The onus, per this thinking, is on the government, and the ECP has no option but to delay elections if the government is not assisting financially and security is not being provided for elections.

Naturally, if the finance ministry, interior ministry and defence ministry all refuse to assist the ECP, how is the commission supposed to go ahead with the elections? The ire then should be shifted more from the ECP to the government, which has chosen to ignore the constitution in favour of petty political gains. A faint excuse has been offered up by some legal eagles who say that the Supreme Court’s order regarding these elections had said that the ECP can go above 90 days by the “barest minimum” in case there is any difficulty, and that this can be interpreted subjectively as even April 30 is above 90 days. This, though, has to be the thinnest straw to clutch in a situation that looks very clearly like the government running away from performing a constitutional duty.

The government says it cannot be held hostage to the whims of one man. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb has justified the ECP’s decision, saying polls in two provinces would have been contentious while a population census is going on in the country. However, the government has conveniently forgotten something: the constitution of Pakistan has not placed any bar on holding separate elections in the constitution so essentially when the government – and let’s not be confused over why and how the ECP has come to this decision – says it will not be holding elections, there is little room for legal nuances. It is quite apparent that the coalition government is in no mood to hold the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa before the general elections in October. One would have thought that, given the chaos we have seen the past week or so, the least the government could have done was to try some rapprochement with the PTI instead of refusing the ECP assistance and setting a dangerous precedent. The government may have won this round, but in the longer run, Pakistan and its democratic system has been ruthlessly mangled these past few years, not holding elections in the stipulated time frame only the latest attack. As the PTI gears up to go to court, hoping also to conduct a lawyers’ movement like effort, more uncertainty looms ahead. This may not end well for any side.