Any election delays in Pakistan now will be outright dangerous

Any election delays in Pakistan now will be outright dangerous

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The five-year term of the national and two provincial assemblies in Pakistan is coming to an end in the second week of August after which the election is required to be held within 60 days to elect new assemblies, according to the country’s constitution.

The constitution however, also authorizes the prime minister and the provincial chief ministers to prematurely dissolve their respective assemblies and let the election commission hold elections within 90 days – an option which the current national and provincial chief executives may likely exercise a couple of days before the expiry of their assemblies’ – and governments’ – term to avail the extra 30 days of electioneering. This extra time may be especially beneficial to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s party which has to settle a number of legal issues before the self-exiled party leader and the PM’s older brother, Nawaz Sharif, can return to Pakistan and lead the party’s election campaign. The chief ministers of the other two provinces, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, had dissolved their assemblies back in January this year and their election – delayed by about six to seven months due to political and legal wrangling, will also be held along with the three assemblies.

Despite the clarity in the constitutional provisions about the schedule of the election, there are widespread speculations in the media and public circles that elections may not take place according to schedule. These speculations were further reinforced after the government took the extraordinary step of proposing-- and the parliament approved-- an amendment in the law to enhance the powers of the unelected caretaker government. Many analysts believe that empowering the caretaker government is a sign that the caretaker set-up may be prolonged while elections are delayed.

Another development which further fueled speculations of election postponement was the proposal to appoint the current finance minister and close relative of former PM Nawaz Sharif as the future caretaker prime minister. This was taken as a sign that the current government was anticipating, even planning, a longer spell for the caretaker government and wanted to install a highly trusted party loyalist as caretaker PM although the move would run counter to the spirit of the constitution.

The constitution of Pakistan is the most effective guarantee of the country’s unity and integrity. Any defiance of the constitution will only serve to once again weaken the country.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Irrespective of the reasons which may be advanced for the possible delay in elections, there are inherent dangers in adopting such a course. First, not holding elections within the constitutionally mandated period of 60 or 90 days which translates to either by October 12 or November 11 respectively, will be an outright violation of the constitution and has legal consequences. Since the election to all five assemblies in the country is to take place at this time, there is no plausible ground for delaying the election.

In the past, political process in Pakistan has repeatedly suffered because of election delays or putting off parliamentary sessions. In 1956, soon after the adoption of the country’s first constitution by the constituent assembly, instead of holding the national assembly election, the constitution was abrogated and martial law was declared, derailing the country’s political system to such an extent that the next direct election could not be held for 14 long years and the country lagged by at least two decades behind India which had gained independence at the same time as Pakistan. This lag in political development persists even today.

Another fateful postponement happened when Pakistan’s first national assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise was to meet in March 1971 but the then military ruler, General Yahya Khan, postponed the assembly session indefinitely without even consulting the majority party. The result was the eruption of unprecedented agitation in East Pakistan which escalated into a civil war and led to the separation of East Pakistan – today’s Bangladesh.

The constitution of Pakistan is the most effective guarantee of the country’s unity and integrity. Any defiance of the constitution will only serve to once again derail the political system and weaken the country.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view