“Sudden decision to hold elections on new census raises doubts”

August 13, 2023

“Sudden decision to hold elections on new census raises doubts”

Pakistan is faced with unprecedented constitutional and political challenges. In some instances, political priorities appear to be superseding constitutional limits. The latest challenge comes amidst allegations against the PDM alliance of deliberately delaying the general elections on the pretext of using the data from the latest census approved just a week before the premature dissolution of the National Assembly. These steps are being seen as taken to delay the anticipated general elections in the country. The News on Sunday spoke to Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the founder president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), for his analysis of the current political situation, the consequences of delay in holding the elections and the way forward. Excerpts follow:


he News on Sunday (TNS): How do you see the current political situation amid allegations of a deliberate delay in holding the general elections using tactics such as the last minute approval of the census results and the dissolution of the National Assembly nominally before the end of its term?

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob (ABM): There are two ways of looking at it. One is that publishing the census results once the census was complete was a constitutional obligation. The timing, however, raises questions about the government’s motive.

TNS: Do you think such actions can be judged democratic? Some people have said that dissolving the National Assembly a few days ahead of its mandated end of term to secure more time for holding the elections amounts to a violation of the constitution.

ABM: I think it falls within the ambit of the privileges of incumbency. Prime ministers and chief ministers have the authority to dissolve assemblies in their discretion and it is quite common across parliamentary democracies. Thirty extra days should not create a material difference as long as the elections take place and are free and fair.

TNS: There are concerns that the census was completed much earlier, in April, and that it took a lot of time to compile and publish the results. Given the political situation, was it necessary to present the results before the Council of Common Interests a week before the government’s tenure was to end?

ABM: As I said earlier, the timing does raise questions. The first interim results of the census were announced on April 1. However, the figures were obviously wrong and incomplete and lot of hue and cry was raised. The deadline to complete the census was changed eight times. One can blame the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics for incompetence but part of the blame is to be shared by provincial governments, too, as they provide the human resource for enumeration. It is difficult to draw a firm conclusion but the sudden decision to hold elections based on new census results raises doubts.

TNS: What are the possible fallouts of this situation for the country’s politics?

ABM: If the Election Commission of Pakistan announces a firm date and sticks to it, the fallout will be minimal. If the delay appears to be indefinite, it will agitate people.

TNS: There has already been an extraordinary delay in holding elections for the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Will a further delay set the wrong precedents?

ABM: According to my understanding, there is no need for delaying the election schedule. Since provincial allocation of the National Assembly seats remains unchanged after the new census results have been published, the requirement of Article 51(5) is already fulfilled. Intra-provincial redistribution of the national and provincial assemblies’ seats may necessitate fresh delimitation but that is something for the ECP to decide or for the Supreme Court to adjudicate in case the ECP decision is challenged. In any case, and even in the worst case, the constitution doesn’t allow an indefinite delay. If the Supreme Court also endorses the need for fresh delimitation, the election date may move from November 8 to January 8.

TNS: Do you think the political parties are playing their role in strengthening democracy and the parliament?

ABM: Sadly, the political parties are junior partners in the prevailing system. Their role doesn’t matter much. They can be held responsible only in proportion to the powers held by various entities in the country.

TNS: What is the way forward in the current constitutional and political situation?

ABM: The elected government should hold a sustained dialogue with the military on the platform of the National Security Council so that civil-military relations can be established in accordance with the constitution.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com

“Sudden decision to hold elections on new census raises doubts”