How the population census could impact Pakistan’s coming elections

How the population census could impact Pakistan’s coming elections

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This is election year in Pakistan. The dates for the election of provincial assemblies in the two provinces – Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have already been set for April 30 and May 28 respectively. This is also census year in the country. The population and housing census is supposed to be held every 10 years as has been the norm since 1881, even before the independence of the Indian sub-continent.

Since the population census is the basis of the allocation of National Assembly seats among the four provinces and Islamabad capital territory according to Article 51(5) of the constitution, it impacts the conduct of the election in a very significant way. Once the National Assembly seats are allocated to the provinces, these are further apportioned among the districts based on the population counted for each district. In case the change in population formalized through the final notification of the federal government results in change in the number of seats allocated to a province or district - as it had happened after the 2017 census - the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is bound to undertake the delimitation of constituencies afresh and hold the subsequent election on the basis of new delimitation which takes approximately four months. The census and specifically the notification of its final findings, therefore, have the potential to affect the schedule of the election.

The federal government has announced that the final findings of the ongoing census will be notified by April 30. In case this target is achieved, the ECP will complete its delimitation exercise by the end of August which coincides with the date when the National and two provincial assemblies will complete their terms. Fresh elections for the three assemblies will in that case be held by the end of October based on the census 0f 2023. The election of the Punjab and KP provincial assemblies scheduled for April and May 2023 will however be held on the basis of the old delimitation carried out after census 2017.

The results of the ongoing census may not please everyone, and political leaders including those from PPP and MQM have already expressed skepticism about its accuracy. 

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Although some issues were faced in many of Pakistan’s censuses in the past, these were generally not of a serious nature and census results were notified without a serious problem. A very serious objection was, however, raised about the accuracy of 2017 census. Provincial government of Sindh felt that its population had been under-counted. Within Sindh, especially in Karachi, political parties also raised objections to supposedly lower count of the population of Karachi city. The main argument imbedded in the objection was that there was a large number of migrant population from other provinces which had been living and working in Sindh, notably in Karachi, for decades but had been counted in their ancestral provinces because their identification cards contained the permanent address of their province of origin. Sindh felt that since all these persons consumed the resources of Sindh and used the infrastructure like roads, electricity, drinking water etc of Sindhi towns and cities, it was only fair that they be counted as population of Sindh so that the allocation of funds from the federal consolidated fund and the number of seats in the National Assembly could be made for Sindh province accordingly. It was because of these objections that the federal government decided to hold the next census early – in 1923 instead of 1927 when it would have become due. 

The results of the ongoing census may not please everyone either. Political leaders including those from PPP and MQM have expressed skepticism about its accuracy already. In case the census results turn out to be unacceptable to some parties in the ruling coalition, either the expensive exercise of the new census will go to waste or an effort to check and amend the census results may delay the national assembly election even beyond October 2023.  

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat

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