ISLAMABAD: In a tacit endorsement of the findings of recently-held census, the federal cabinet on Wednesday decided to go ahead with delimitation of constituencies before the next general elections on the basis of provisional data of the exercise.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also sought suggestions from the cabinet members regarding proposed increase in the number of seats of parliament on the basis of the provisional results of the population census, according to sources.

The sources said that during a debate on the issue, a majority of the cabinet members opposed the idea of increasing the number of general seats in the National Assembly from 272, terming it unnecessary under the present political and economic situation.

On the other hand, a few cabinet members were of the view that the number of seats should be increased to 300, keeping in view the massive increase in the country’s population.

The prime minister deferred the decision on the matter and asked the cabinet members to come up with their suggestions at the next meeting. The members were of the opinion that since a constitutional amendment would be required in case they decided to increase the number of seats, there was a need to hold consultations with other political parties on the matter as well.

At present there are 272 general seats and 70 reserved for women and minorities in the 342-member National Assembly. The increase in the number of seats of the national as well as provincial assemblies was last made by former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf before the 2002 general elections. The seats were increased through an amendment to the Constitution, which was later endorsed by parliament through the 17th Constitution Amendment.

Under the laws, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is empowered to carry out delimitation of constituencies of the National Assembly, provincial assemblies as well as local bodies. However, a fresh legislation is required to allow the ECP to do so on the basis of the census results.

The next elections are scheduled to be held after completion of the term of the present assembly on May 31. The ECP has already warned the government that the time is running out for fresh delimitation of constituencies ahead of the 2018 elections and that it would not be possible for the commission to carry out the exercise in a short period since the final results of the census are expected to be announced sometime in April next year. The ECP has also warned that legality of the general elections without delimitation could be questioned.

Political experts see the cabinet’s decision on delimitation of the constituencies as an apparent move to settle the controversy over the census data by the Sindh government and some political parties.

In August, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) had approved the provisional results of the sixth census that put the country’s population at 207.77 million with an annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent.

The sixth Population and Housing Census was carried out across the country from March 15 to May 24. The country’s total population stood at 132.35m in 1998.

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah had on different occasions told media personnel that in the CCI meeting he had expressed reservations on the census figures about his province and made the demand that the block-wise data be also released.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement had also rejected the census figures about the urban population of Sindh, particularly that of Karachi.

Meanwhile, according to an official handout issued by the PM Office, the cabinet approved the signing of an inter-governmental agreement on supply of liquefied natural gas between the Ministry of Energy (Petroleum Division) and the Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister’s Department, Malaysia.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2017