ISLAMABAD: Amid growing fears that hiccups in the way of fresh delimitation of constituencies may delay 2018 general elections, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah has come up with a proposal to avert the threat, suggesting that the coming polls can be held on the basis of old census figures.

Talking to Dawn on Saturday, Mr Shah categorically declared that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) would never support the constitutional amendment bill tabled by the government in the National Assembly seeking re-allocation of seats of the national and provincial assemblies if Sindh’s concerns on the figures of the recently held census were not removed.

When asked about the fears that the deadlock over the proposed constitutional amendment bill due to the last-minute opposition by the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) might cause a delay in the coming general elections, Mr Shah said his party would never want to see elections getting delayed. And it is for this reason that he is suggesting the formula of holding the next election on the basis of last census. He, however, said that so far his party had not given this proposal to the government or other parties.

Says PPP will never support delimitation bill; govt, ECP see legal hitches in new proposal

He said supporting the bill would amount to endorsing the provisional results of the controversial census carried out in the country earlier this year.

Law Minister Zahid Hamid introduced the constitutional amendment bill in the National Assembly on Nov 2 after an “agreement” among all parties during a two-day meeting of parliamentary leaders of all parties with Speaker Ayaz Sadiq.

But soon after the introduction of the bill, the PPP’s parliamentary leader Syed Naveed Qamar declared the move “unconstitutional”, alleging that the government had played a trick on them by telling them that the bill was being moved in the light of the decision of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) though it was not the case.

Similarly, MQM parliamentary leader Dr Farooq Sattar also criticised the government move to introduce the bill without taking any step to allay concerns of Sindh. He said the MQM had serious concerns over the census results and suggested delimitation on the basis of number of voters, instead of the population.

Reacting to the objections raised by the two opposition members, the law minister had claimed that Mr Qamar had not raised the CCI issue in any of the two meetings of the parliamentary leaders and, therefore, raising objections at this stage was uncalled-for.

The heads of all parliamentary parties had agreed last week that no change would be made in the existing 272 general seats of the National Assembly and those of the provincial assemblies and that fresh delimitation of constituencies would be made on the basis of the provisional results of the census.

Delimitation of national and provincial assembly constituencies is mandatory after a fresh census and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has already called for the required legislation by Nov 10 to allow it to carry out the massive exercise of making fresh delimitation of constituencies and preparing new electoral rolls.

Although the number of seats in the National Assembly will remain at 272, fresh delimitation would affect Punjab, dominated by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), as the province stands to lose up to nine seats in the lower house. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will acquire five new seats, Balochistan three and the Islamabad Capital Territory will receive one additional seat.

Mr Shah denied that the PPP had taken a U-turn on the issue, claiming that the party had been assured by the government that its concerns over the census results would be removed before approval of the amendment bill.

He said since he had left the meeting earlier, his partner Syed Naveed Qamar had told him that the government had assured them that soon the officials of the Statistics Division would hold a meeting with PPP and MQM representatives to allay their concerns.

But no such meeting had been arranged by the government so far, the opposition leader deplored. He also said that no one from the government had approached the PPP since its opposition to the bill in the assembly on Nov 2.

Asked what steps would satisfy the PPP, Mr Shah said they had already suggested to the government to release block-wise data of the census to remove apprehensions of the political parties. If data of all blocks could not be released, then at least data of few randomly-selected blocks could be released.

Law minister’s reaction

When contacted to seek his opinion on Mr Shah’s proposal, the law minister said there could be some legal hitches in it as the ECP had perhaps stated that it was not possible as such a move could be challenged before the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a senior official of the ECP said in such a scenario, Punjab would be over-represented as against its population by three per cent.

“Is it a legal option? As a citizen, I fail to understand this proposal and it would be unfair,” he said.

On the other hand, ECP spokesman clarified that the commission had not set any deadline for parliament to carry out the legislation. However, under the new Elections Act, the ECP is required to present its action plan for the elections four months before the polling date. Therefore, it would require sufficient time to carry out the massive exercise as due to unnecessary delay, there were possibilities of some mistakes.

About the PPP’s proposal regarding elections on the basis of existing constituencies, he said if the parliament approved it through a constitutional amendment, then the ECP would have no problem. However, he said, delimitation of the constituencies would become imperative under the constitution if the census results were released in April next year.

PTI also opposes the bill

In another related development, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has announced that it will also not support the constitutional amendment bill if the government does not allay concerns of the PPP and the MQM.

Talking to Dawn, PTI information secretary Shafqat Mehmood said that his party had supported the bill in principle, but it would not vote for it at the cost of the opposition’s unity.

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2017

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