Will early elections resolve the stalemate in Pakistan?
The pivot around which Imran Khan’s entire protest movement revolves is the demand for an early general election in Pakistan. General election is the term used for election to the entire National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies which would lead to the election of Prime Minister by the national assembly and the four Chief Ministers by their respective provincial assemblies. The 5-year term of the five assemblies doesn’t expire until August next year after which the general election, according to the country’s constitution, has to take place within 60 days. This translates into general election taking place eleven months from now - in October next year.
Like in most parliamentary governments, only the Prime Minister has the authority to dissolve the National Assembly at any time during the life of the legislature. A similar constitutional power is enjoyed by the provincial Chief Ministers to dissolve their respective provincial assemblies. In such a case, the Election Commission is supposed to hold elections within 90 days of dissolution of an assembly.
Although Pakistan has been holding national and provincial assemblies elections on or around the same date in the past 10 general elections, there is no constitutional compulsion that the election to national and all provincial assemblies should take place on or around the same date although staggered election to national and provincial legislatures will create serious practical issues and increase the cost of the election. The bottom line, however, is that it is only the Prime Minister and the Chief minister who have the discretionary powers to dissolve their respective assembly and go for early election. Imran Khan, therefore, can demand early election and create pressure for this purpose but there is no constitutional obligation for the PM to concede to this demand.
Even if the Prime Minister and most of his coalition partners become willing to hold early election, two of the allied parties – PPP and MQM – and PPP’s provincial government of Sindh may throw in the spanner because fresh population census which is a hugely emotive issue for Sindh and which was agreed to by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) under the chairmanship of then PM Imran Khan, has not yet been held and it has been recently announced by the federal government that the results of the new census will not be available before the end of April 2023. The Election Commission will require another four months to demarcate the assembly constituencies afresh after the census results become available. Practically. this scenario will result in elections around September or October 2023.
Unless PTI and the coalition government sit down without pre-conditions and negotiate an agreement on the date and related details such as the make-up of the caretaker governments, the stalemate can’t be resolved.
Another question is whether the PPP will be ready to sacrifice 11 months of its mandated rule in Sindh province by dissolving the Sindh Assembly for an early election. It is also not clear whether Imran Khan will be ready to dissolve the provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to hold their fresh election along with the National Assembly election.
Even if all these hurdles are overcome and an early general election is held, it is highly unlikely that the current stalemate will be resolved. Imran Khan and his party has repeatedly levelled extremely serious charges against the 5-member Election Commission (EC) in general and the Chief Election Commissioner in particular, despite the fact that PTI has won critical by-elections for Punjab provincial assembly and the national assembly organized by the same EC in the recent past. In case PTI is unable to secure a clear majority in the next election, it is highly likely that it would refuse to accept the election result and return to square one to start a fresh round of agitation. If PTI scores a clear majority, PMLN and its allies may also take to the streets, though its agitation has traditionally not been as lethal as PTI’s.
Where does this lead to? Unless PTI and the coalition government sit down without pre-conditions and negotiate an agreement on the date and related details such as the make-up of the caretaker governments, the stalemate can’t be resolved. Apparently, the two parties may be more willing to talk after the new Chief of Army Staff is appointed later this month because one major reason for the current muscle-flexing by PTI is to influence the important appointment. If PTI is unable to mobilize an extraordinarily large crowd in Islamabad which paralyses the capital and makes the federal government capitulate – an unlikely scenario because PTI was unable to achieve this very objective in 2014 when, unlike today, it apparently enjoyed the support of the establishment – it may then decide to return to the National Assembly and negotiate. If the two parties don’t agree to talk and the agitation turns ugly, the doomsday scenario of a military take-over can’t be ruled out.
– Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.