ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's political crisis deepened on Wednesday as the election regulator announced polls in the country's most populous Punjab province would be postponed from April 30 to October 8.
The move is likely to irk former Prime Minister Imran Khan who, since his ouster from office last April, has been calling for early elections and holding mass demonstrations and sit-ins to pile pressure on the government. In recent days, Khan's party has said it would launch countrywide street protests if general elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where provincial assemblies were dissolved in January, are not held within a constitutionally mandated 90-day limit.
After much political and legal debate, Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi announced April 30 as the date for Punjab provincial assembly elections earlier this month.
The president announced the date after Pakistan's top court ruled that elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces should be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the provincial legislatures.
The controversy was triggered when former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and allies dissolved the Punjab and KP provincial assemblies in January, in a bid to force the government of PM Shehbaz Sharif to announce nationwide polls.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said in a notification that it held meetings on March 20, 21, and 22 to "deliberate extensively" on the matter of Punjab elections after receiving briefings from law enforcement agencies, ministries of finance, defence, interior and the secretary of Punjab,
"The Commission after considering the reports, briefing and material brought before it, has arrived at the just conclusion that it is not possible to hold and organize the elections honestly, justly, fairly, in a peaceful manner and in accordance with the Constitution and law," it said.
"The Commission hereby withdraws the election program issued vide Notification No. F. 2(3)/2023/Cord dated 8th March, 2023 and fresh schedule will be issued in due course of time with poll date on 08th October, 2023," it added.
"The constitution and the Supreme Court have been practically abolished," Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, a close aide of Khan, wrote on Twitter. "Pakistan is now without a constitution."
Ousted via a parliamentary vote in April 2022, Khan has been pressurizing the government to hold early elections, a demand repeatedly rejected by PM Shehbaz Sharif. Khan has alleged that the ruling coalition government is "running away" from elections out of fear of his surging popularity.