The PPP has shown flexibility in its stance on holding elections within 90 days
he probability of general elections being held within 90 days of the dissolution of the National Assembly, as demanded by the bar councils and certain political parties, appears to be quite low.
This assessment is based in part on technical reasons. On the other hand, some of the political parties, most noticeably the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have softened their stance on the timeframe.
Earlier, following a central executive committee meeting, the PPP had demanded that the Elections Commission of Pakistan ensure that elections were held within 90 days in accordance with the constitutional provision. It had warned that it might file a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in case the ECP failed to fulfil its mandate. Later, a PPP delegation had met the ECP officials and reiterated the demand.
The Bilawal House Media Cell issued a press release on September 5. It said: “Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has urged that the general elections be held according to the constitution so that a democratically elected government can solve the problems of the people.”
According to the press release, PPP Sindh chapter president Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, former chief minister Murad Ali Shah, former federal minister Syed Naveed Qamar, former Sindh minister Nasir Hussain Shah and PPP Women’s Wing Sindh chapter president Shagufta Jumani had called on Bilawal separately. During the meetings, the political and economic situation of the country, public issues and organisational matters were discussed. The PPP chairman said that the party was ready for the forthcoming general elections and would participate vigorously.
However, the press release did not mention the words ‘90 days.’ Some of the PPP insiders say that several developments in the background and ground realities have forced the PPP to rethink its strategy. “The PPP has sensed that the elections might be delayed further as the establishment has managed to install a technocrats’ setup with the help of the previous government and is now trying hard to provide it some credibility. This indicates that the elections might be delayed. Consequently, the PPP has softened its stance in order to persuade the establishment to let the election be held before March 2024.”
Talking to The News on Sunday, another PPP stalwart said: “Top PPP leaders are in talks with the establishment to ensure that elections are held in the coming months. Therefore, the party has softened its stance. The new policy on the conduct of elections will placed before the Central Executive Committee in Lahore.”
For its part, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has indicated that Nawaz Sharif will return by the middle of October. This tends to support the hypothesis that the elections will be held in January-February 2024.
Already, 30 days have gone since the dissolution of the National Assembly. The stipulated 90-day period will end on November 11. Provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were dissolved six months ago. After Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the elections had to be held in 90 days, the ECP failed to do that. Instead it filed a review petition challenging the SC judgment that has now been rejected.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement government, before issuing the advice to the president for the dissolution of the National Assembly, had convened a meeting of the Council of Common Interests that approved the Census 2023 results. This allowed the ECP room to delay the elections in the name of the ‘mandatory’ delimitation of the constituencies. Many legal experts are of the view that the delimitation exercise is not mandatory. They say that the ECP is relying on one section of the Election Act that states that demarcation of the electoral constituencies is mandatory after the census is approved. However, it has chosen to overlook three articles of the constitution that declare that elections are to be held within 90 days after the dissolution of an assembly.
An analysis of the census results shows that out of the 266 general seats of the National Assembly, the share of the Punjab based on its population of 127.68 million, is 141 seats. Likewise, Sindh will get the same number of NA seats, 61, for its population of 55.69 million. Similarly, based on its population of 40.85 million, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will get 45 seats and Balochistan with a population of 14.89 million 16 seats. This means that there will be no change in the general seats for the National Assembly. The same number of seats were allocated to the provinces after the previous census.
If the ECP goes ahead and completes delimitations by November 30, the elections will not be possible before the end of January 2024 because of the time required for the filing of nomination papers, scrutiny, allotment of symbols and campaigning by the candidates as provided in the Election Act, 2017.
The ECP had initially told the Supreme Court of Pakistan that it needed at least four months to complete the delimitations process. The PPP, the Awami National Party and the Balochistan National Party (Mengal) had asked for elections within 90 days. On the other hand, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) had asked for the delimitation exercise. The PML-N is also supporting fresh delimitation of the constituencies after having said earlier that it wanted simultaneous elections across Pakistan and no delay beyond 90 days. Several reasons can be cited for the change in PML-N’s stance on the elections. The foremost is a revival of the party’s relations with the establishment. The second is that the current ECP chief, who had been appointed by former prime minister Imran Khan. During a press conference, the former PM had told this scribe that he had been reluctant initially to endorse the appointment and had only done so under the establishment’s pressure.
Sikandar Sultan Raja, a former bureaucrat, had served in top positions such as secretary for Railways, secretary for petroleum and chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan. The CEC will complete his tenure in 2025. He can only be removed through the Supreme Judicial Council.
Some political leaders and pundits have started saying that they doubt that elections will be held in 2024. They point to the pro-active approach of the current setup on economic and foreign affairs fronts, suggesting that the present setup might continue for an extended period. Prime Minister Anwar-ul Haq Kakar has issued a statement that the ECP is responsible for holding elections and has the authority to announce a schedule. “If the Supreme Court orders that the elections be held elections in 90 days, everybody will have to follow the directive,” he had concluded
The SC is therefore the focus of attention for those who favour prompt elections. The PTI and the Supreme Bar Association have filed petitions before the apex court in this regard. Taking the matter to the SC might be the only way to stop the rumors and the speculation about the next general elections.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher