Making Pakistan election-fit quick
If we go by the book, national and provincial elections are due in Pakistan in August 2023 after completion of the five-year tenures of national and provincial assemblies. But in signature Pakistan style, easy scripts are hard to follow. Extreme political polarization of the past two years that brought the country a whisker shy of economic default has come at the cost of the predictive certainty that comes with constitutional guarantees.
The polarization has involved a contentious change in federal government, premature dissolution of two of four provincial legislatures, a near implosion of PTI, the party of ousted former premier Imran Khan, after its supporters staged violent protests, a change of guard in the army and a near-split in the judiciary on how to judge an explosion of legal challenges to political problems.
All this has meant the key stakeholders – the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the ruling and opposition parties, the judiciary, and the security establishment – have yet to align their support for a specific date for elections even though Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has in recent days made statements about leaving office next month.
Even if these assurances are accepted at face value, just up to 15 weeks before polling is mandated, Pakistan has merely moved from the election-reluctant stage to just the election-ready stage. Critically, it has some way to go before it reaches the election-fit stage even though the sand in the hourglass is fast running out.
Here’s why: the key election stakeholders are still some distance from tying up several critical loose ends, which comprise the menu of being election-fit – unsorted political and legal issues that will make or break the elections and the credibility of their results, remain in play.
Being election-ready alone is inadequate. For the sake of Pakistan’s democracy and its legitimacy, it must be election-fit before polls.
The first is whether Khan and his party will be allowed to participate in the elections or not. This bizarre option came into play after the events of May 9 wherein PTI workers and supporters went on a rampage attacking military installations to protest Khan’s arrest. Many were arrested and dozens now face contentious military trials.
After some official hints that Khan should be tried in military courts and his party banned, at least an election reforms committee last week announced it will not ban PTI. But other legal challenges seeking this option in courts persist and political splintering of PTI is under way. What will happen to millions of PTI voters if the party remains in play for elections, but Khan doesn’t?
Secondly, should elections be held within two months or three? While the constitution allows both options, it is self-serving of the incumbents and to the political disadvantage of the opposition. Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto wants them within two months, but the Sharif camp and establishment seem to want more time to allow for Khan’s fate to be decided before polls.
Thirdly, who will select the constitutionally mandated caretaker federal and provincial governments? These are selected in consultation between the government and opposition. The real opposition, Khan’s party, is out of play. A proxy opposition consulted by the government will dent the credibility of the caretakers, allowing Khan to reject any eventual election results that don’t suit him.
Fourthly, will self-exiled Nawaz Sharif – with undisguised dreams becoming prime minister a fourth time – return before polls to charge his party for battle against Khan’s voters? This will depend on the validity of a recent change in election law that has redacted his controversial lifetime disqualification to five years, thus making him eligible for polls but still open to a hostile judiciary that wants to keep the harsh punishment. If Sharif delays his return, then elections may be delayed until the right judges ascend in the Supreme Court to help him. The current divide in the judiciary is not conducive to fair elections.
Fifthly, will ECP be in full control of elections – from setting a polling date to letting everyone who wants to participate in polls take part, and keeping the voting and results management system in its fiat? Last time, it was alleged the powerful security establishment interfered heavily leading to controversial results. If this is repeated, the political transition will bring instability, not closure.
Being election-ready alone is inadequate. For the sake of Pakistan’s democracy and its legitimacy, it must be election-fit before polls. The above issues need to be urgently resolved in parliament between political parties and an out-of-parliament political congress that issues a charter of commitment on fair play and best practices of political rights and transparency.
No more hidden decisions. Not the state nor its functionaries but the people must be allowed to decide who they want in office next and under what terms. Being election-fit is the right way to a healing political reset in Pakistan.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.