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Delimitation challenges

January 19, 2016


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

THE federal government is planning to conduct the long-delayed population census this year. According to the website of the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the house-listing operation and 15-day census enumeration will be completed by April. Preliminary results will be ready by June while the district-level reports will be published by December 2017.

This means that the census data will be available in full detail at least eight months before the 2018 general elections and that will make it constitutionally mandatory to delimit electoral constituencies before the elections.

The opportunity of redrawing constituencies has always been availed of by the military dictators in our chequered electoral history. They had the constitutional luxury to conduct this important exercise as it pleased them, without paying much heed to criticism by the stakeholders. The same, however, cannot be the case with the elected government, especially as each province is being ruled by a different political party and everyone is watchful and sensitive about its powers and autonomy.

The first challenge that a new delimitation exercise is likely to face is the allocation of seats within the federating units. Article 51 (5) of the Constitution sets population as the sole basis of allocation. Gen Musharraf, however, added subsection 3 to the same article that comprises a chart allocating a specific number of seats to each unit. The section was later sustained by parliament through the 18th Amendment in 2010. This allocation is not proportionate to the federating units’ share in population.

A new delimitation exercise will face the challenge of distribution of seats within the provinces.

The anomaly is caused by the ‘obligation’ to allocate Fata more seats than its due share. According to the 1998 population census figures, Fata deserved seven (6.53 to be exact) seats in the National Assembly while it was allocated 12. The extra five seats, obviously, came from the shares of the other provinces.

In the previous delimitation done in 1988, as the Election Commission of Pakistan used the 1981 population figures, Fata’s seats were reduced from eight to five. The then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan intervened through an ordinance to undo this. Consequently, the seat shares were frozen to the previous level in violation of the constitutional principle.

The justification for this ‘positive discrimination’ towards Fata is that the area has no representation in a provincial assembly, and hence shall be compensated in the national. This, however, has no constitutional basis.

Now as both these contradictory provisions are part of the Constitution, which one will the Election Commission apply to the new census figures? This could generate some heat especially if the smaller provinces are made to bear the cost.

The second important challenge for the new delimitation will be the distribution of seats within the provinces. Besides population, the Delimitation Act 1974 has set maintaining administrative boundaries, geographical compactness, means of communication and other cognate factors as the criteria for this exercise. This leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre.

The first principle that the ECP applies is to allocate a whole number for national seats in a district and the same applies to tehsil/taluka for provincial seats. District and tehsil shares in the population are thus rounded off. This is done to ensure a viable relationship between the administrative set-up and the elected representatives.

But then, there are no principles for the formation of a new district or tehsil and there have been a lot of creations since the last delimitation, especially in Sindh, which resulted in a large number of multi-district constituencies. Since the ECP can only re-describe and not change the boundaries of a constituency before a new census, NA-207 Larkana IV of 2002 became Larkana-cum-Shikarpur-cum-Kambar Shahdadkot in the next. The ECP, in fact, had to re-describe 130 (of 272) national constituencies and accommodate other changes before the last elections.

When the ECP goes to the drafting table, the boundaries of NA-207 and other multi-district seats will not remain the same. These changes will have a cascading impact on other districts; allocations to even those where seats currently constitute a whole number will change. Resultantly, the entire electoral map of Sindh will be redrawn which, of course, has the potential of causing friction and conflict.

Delimitation problems are, however, not limited to one province. The seat allocation among and within districts is not equitable in others as well. Pakhtunkhwa district of Lower Dir has one seat for its 718,000 (1998 census figures) people while neighbouring Upper Dir with 142,000 less people also has one. The Balochistan districts of Jafarabad and Nasirabad with a combined population of 679,000 was given one seat in the National Assembly, while Killa Abdullah with a population of almost half this number was also awarded one seat.

There is also a visible bias in favour of urban areas. The average 1998 population in 27 southernmost constituencies of Punjab was 524,000, while the number for 12 Lahore seats was 38,000 less than this.

These variances are explained away as unavoidable due to the varied sizes of the districts. But in common political discourse, these are seen as deliberate attempts to snatch away from certain sections their due share and award it to others. There is a need to question ‘the principle’ that the limits of political constituencies have to respect the administrative boundaries of a district and tehsil. Why can’t it be the other way round?

Numerical equality of population, however, cannot serve as the only criterion for demarcation of constituencies. NA-271 Kharan-cum-Panjgur in Balochistan covers a massive area of 65,000 sq km with very poor means of communication, while most of the Karachi and Lahore constituencies span just a few square kilometres and have comparatively far superior infrastructure. The electors, the candidates and the representatives in these two areas cannot exercise their rights. Neither can they perform their duties with equal ease. These factors need to be recognised but the exercise should not be left to the subjective assessments of those responsible. The 34-member parliamentary committee on electoral reforms should work out specific criteria and a system to ensure that these are followed in a transparent manner. Only that can ensure that the 2018 elections do not become controversial even before they are held.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2016