Rocky road to elections


Rocky road to elections

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While uncertainty persists about election timing in Pakistan, prospects of a non-controversial poll seem to be diminishing. Controversy continues over a date for the general election. Demands by several political parties and lawyers’ groups that elections should be held within the constitutionally stipulated 90-day period from the dissolution of the national assembly are countered by the argument that polls can only be convened after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) completes the delimitation process in accordance with the 2023 digital census. This is the position ECP, the caretaker government and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have taken, which indicates elections will likely be delayed until February 2024. ECP has resisted announcing an election date, intensifying the controversy as well as fueling doubts about whether they will even take place in February. 

The issue is in the Supreme Court where there has been a change at the helm with Qazi Faez Isa assuming the office of Chief Justice. This raises the question of how he will deal with several petitions before the apex court on this contentious issue. The outgoing chief justice Umar Ata Bandial had reiterated several times that there was no getting away from the 90-day constitutional obligation. In his farewell speech to the Supreme Court Bar Association, he again reminded the audience that the Constitution clearly stated elections have to be held within 90 days and asked why this timeline was being contested.

President Arif Alvi also weighed in on this issue by writing a letter to ECP saying that elections should be held no later than November 6, the 89th day following the assembly’s dissolution. He also urged ECP to seek guidance from the superior judiciary. The ECP has yet to respond to the presidential missive; his view is in any case non-binding. Nevertheless, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar added his voice to this controversy by saying elections could be held in late January if ECP is able to conclude delimitation and that the electoral body would respond to the presidential letter after “due diligence.”

Pull-quote: Public doubts are intensifying about the credibility of the electoral exercise. 

- Maleeha Lodhi

In addition to the political dispute and legal challenges on election timing, the path to elections is becoming clouded by other disagreements. The first salvo was fired last week by PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who decried the absence of a “level playing field” for the polls. Subsequently party representatives publicly assailed the inclusion in the interim cabinet of former bureaucrats who had been closely aligned with PML-N in the past. They also accused ECP of bias.

This prompted a quick response from ECP. In a letter addressed to the prime minister’s office, it urged the interim government to refrain from inducting “persons of known political allegiance.” It asked for a level playing field for all parties and referred to a press conference held by a political party in which it “blamed the caretaker government of carrying on with the previous political legacy.” This exchange only reinforced the general view that the complexion of the caretaker government is neither nonpartisan nor neutral. It was further reinforced by the interim prime minister’s insistence on inducting another minister in the cabinet with close ties to PML-N.

A more significant and ongoing development that has clouded the run-up to polls is the incarceration of leaders of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf and the multiple legal cases filed against them. Almost the entire top tier of the party leadership is imprisoned, including Imran Khan and Shah Mahmud Qureshi, while a sweeping crackdown against PTI has sent other party members to jail or driven them underground. It remains unclear who would or would not be allowed to run in the election. This obviously places the country’s largest political party at a crushing electoral disadvantage. 

All of this raises the question of how free and fair the election will be, whenever it is held, when the process is already mired in so much controversy. Public doubts are intensifying about the credibility of the electoral exercise. This is also reflected in a Gallup-Pakistan opinion survey of June 2023 in which only a quarter of Pakistanis expressed sufficient confidence in the fairness and transparency of the coming elections; the majority of respondents had little or no faith in the integrity of the upcoming polls. 

Pakistan already has an unedifying record in this regard. Virtually every election outcome in the past has been disputed. In the 1990’s PML-N and PPP took turns to accuse each other of winning by ballot fraud. More recently when Khan’s PTI lost to PML-N in the 2013 election he alleged vote rigging. Similarly in 2018, when Khan won, both PPP and PML-N accused him of winning by widespread vote fraud orchestrated by the establishment. This troubled past makes it imperative for the coming election to be free and fair. Pakistan’s political stability will be put at risk if the election is seen to lack credibility and fairness. 

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

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