Strong international implications of Pakistan’s deferred elections

Strong international implications of Pakistan’s deferred elections

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Despite the fact that the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies of two Pakistani provinces Sindh and Balochistan were dissolved more than a month ago and the other two provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were dissolved much earlier in January this year, no election schedule has so far been announced. This despite the country’s constitution being explicit about holding elections within 90 days. 

Elections to the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assemblies which should have taken place by April 2023, were deferred because the Parliament had refused to provide the needed funds to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the security agencies had also expressed their inability to provide security cover for election operations. 

The election to the other three assemblies has become due by November 6 but the ECP has deferred the election to all assemblies, because, according to ECP’s interpretation of the Constitution, a 4-month long fresh delimitation of constituencies is needed prior to election because of the new population census. This extended postponement is causing concern and anxiety among some political parties such as Imran Khan’s PTI and the PPP, the former ally of PML-N. Since, there is an inexplicable delay in announcing the election schedule by the ECP, there is widespread uncertainty and skepticism about the future political course of the country and many observers anticipate delay in election even beyond the much-anticipated election date of February 2024. 

The postponement of elections beyond February could jeopardize not only the future IMF agreement, but even the remaining tranches of funds approved in the stand-by agreement.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The prospects of delay in election and the possible unrest it may lead to within the country are also causing worries among foreign countries and international institutions. The nine-month stand-by agreement signed by Pakistan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to save itself from default, will expire in April next year and a long-term agreement will need to be signed before that to continue receiving the badly-needed funds. Only an elected government with a long-term public mandate will be able to sign the agreement. This means that the elected government should be in place latest by February and enter into negotiations with the IMF straight away to avoid another threat of default. The postponement of elections beyond February could jeopardize not only the future agreement, but even the remaining tranches of funds approved in the stand-by agreement.

Any such action by IMF will, almost certainly, have a domino effect and all those countries and multi-lateral agencies which may be planning to extend credit lines or invest in Pakistan could hold back with critical ramifications for Pakistan. 

Pakistan was given the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences+ (GSP+) status in January 2014. Pakistani exports to the EU have risen by 165 percent since the grant of GSP+ status. In return, the GSP+ requires Pakistan to effectively implement about 27 International Conventions on human rights, democracy, labor rights, good governance, and environmental protection. 

In December 2023, Pakistan’s GSP+ status is due to expire, and the EU is currently reviewing whether this should be extended or withdrawn. If the elections are deferred beyond February, Pakistan’s preferential status would be under greater scrutiny by the EU. 

The EU is one of Pakistan’s major export destinations with 16.1 percent of total Pakistani exports going there in 2020. This economic clout gives EU a strong influence on the country’s decisions especially relating to elections. How the EU is going to view the possible postponement of the election is indicated by their decision to send a much smaller ‘Expert Mission’ to observe polls in Pakistan compared to the larger ‘Long-term Election Observer Missions’ fielded during the past four elections.

About 19 percent of total Pakistani exports go to the US, making it one of the country’s top export destinations as well. Although it will be too early to predict how the US will react to the possible postponement of elections in Pakistan, some of the recent developments in the US Congress indicate that significantly effective lobbies exist which can make the US administration exert considerable pressure on Pakistan. Some recent statements issued by US government spokespersons on the subject were cautious but indicated the government’s concern about uncertainty regarding the election schedule. 

A large Pakistani diaspora in the US, Canada and several European countries has a sizeable portion of very active PTI supporters. They are working, often with the help of professional lobbyists, to ensure that pressure is exerted on Pakistan by the governments of their countries to hold early elections. Since the democratic governments in these countries are quite susceptible to the pressure of such domestic lobbies, the persistent agitation by the Pakistani diaspora may have ramifications for Pakistan’s foreign relations.

The Pakistani election, therefore, is not just a domestic concern. It has huge potential to impact Pakistan’s foreign relations and foreign policy as well, and in fact is already doing so.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat


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