The price of delay

The price of delay

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Now that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has made it clear that elections cannot be held in 90 days, as stipulated by the Constitution, speculation and concern has mounted about when polls will take place. The previous Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government had in its final days secured approval by the Council of Common Interests meeting on August 5 of the new population census. This happened just a few days before the National Assembly was dissolved, which ended the PDM government’s tenure. Accordingly, last week the ECP issued a schedule that indicated it needed four months for fresh delimitation of constituencies, which it expects to complete in mid-December. This ruled out elections within the statutory 90-day period and predictably provoked an outcry.

The ECP defended its decision to delay the election by invoking section 17(2) of the Elections Act which says, “The commission shall delimit constituencies after every census is officially published.” It claimed that redrawing electoral boundaries was a constitutional requirement to hold polls, and that without fresh delimitation and updating of electoral rolls, voters will not have “true representation in parliament and provincial assemblies.” It also argued that different provisions of the Constitution have to be read together, reconciled and harmonised to give a ‘meaningful interpretation’ of the Constitution.

None of this prevented legal challenges and criticism of the ECP’s decision. Its failure to announce a date for elections further fuelled the controversy. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) both opposed the move, insisting elections should be held on time. The PPP was part of the unanimous CCI decision on the census so its current stance seemed to be more an expedient posture than a real change of heart. PTI announced it would mount a legal challenge. Its leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi wrote a letter to the interim Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar demanding that elections should be held within 90 days. It also argued that the issue of fresh delimitation of constituencies invoked by the ECP “cannot be taken as a pretext to delay the elections as the timeline contained in the Constitution is clear and cannot be stretched.”  He was soon arrested, although on a different issue.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court Bar Association filed a constitutional petition in the apex court that sought suspension of the ECP decision to hold elections on the new census and pointed out that it was ECP’s constitutional responsibility to convene elections within 90 days of the Assembly’s dissolution. SCBA also described elections on the fresh census as an attempt to unconstitutionally delay the polls.

Any expectation that the next Chief Justice of the apex court, Qazi Faez Isa, will go along with a longer delay and endorse it may prove to be mistaken.

Maleeha Lodhi

Doubts about a protracted delay in elections also intensified after the installation of the federal caretaker government. Not only was a large, 24-member cabinet sworn in, which seemed inconsistent with the requirement for a 90-day or even six-month period, but some portfolios, such as culture, tourism and national heritage, made little sense for a transitory arrangement only charged with managing day to day affairs. Moreover, sweeping postings and transfers of civil servants at the federal level also deepened doubts about how long the interim government would stay. A leaked internal memo of the ECP which asked for bureaucratic postings “across the board” reinforced such doubts.

The timing of elections has already become a source of political and legal contention. But any plan to postpone elections beyond February/March 2024 is bound to trigger a constitutional crisis. Those seeking such a delay may be misjudging the Supreme Court’s response in this regard. Similarly, any expectation that the next Chief Justice of the apex court, Qazi Faez Isa, will go along with a longer delay and endorse it may prove to be mistaken.

Apart from the legality, it is hard to understand the political logic for such a move. If Khan and his party are seen as a threat, the PTI leader is already in jail and disqualified from taking part in elections. As for the party contesting the polls, what difference will a delay of some months make to the political situation and to the electoral fortunes of PTI and its competitors?

In fact, an inordinate or indefinite delay would come at a heavy cost to the country and would become a source of political instability. It would deepen polarisation and divide the country further. It could also set the stage for political turmoil. Even many parties in the PDM alliance would suspect that the way is being paved for the so-called technocratic government to continue indefinitely with the establishment’s backing. Half of the Senate is up for election in March but if elections are not held by then, it will leave the country with a truncated upper house, which is elected by national and provincial assembly members. This would be a recipe for constitutional chaos.

The economic cost would also be high as political uncertainty would dampen the business climate and keep investors away. A standby agreement with the IMF may have helped Pakistan to avert a debt default but the bailout is only a temporary reprieve. It is a necessary, not sufficient condition to establish financial stability and chart a path to growth, which depends on measures to deal with the underlying reasons for the economic crisis and steps to restore business confidence. Only an elected government with a fresh mandate and popular legitimacy can do this.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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