From census to polls

Updated 15 Dec 2017


THE deadlock between the major political parties over how to conduct the delimitation of constituencies after the latest census is an entirely unnecessary controversy that can, if prolonged, impact the election timeline. As such, all the parties that have staked out tough positions now need to step back and consider the bigger picture. Ensuring that the census count is accurate and its results have the confidence of all major stakeholders, particularly the political parties, is undoubtedly crucial — especially considering the electoral as well as the resource-allocation implications of the data. But the parties must make sure that the ongoing debates about the veracity of the data should not be allowed to put the election itself in the balance. The consolidation of democracy is far from complete. Peaceful elections and the handover of power — after completing the full parliamentary term of five years for the second time in this nation’s history — to the next civilian government is the bigger picture here. All other issues should be seen in light of this.

The census data impacts the electoral exercise in three important ways. First, there is the question of the total number of seats in the national and provincial legislatures, which are pegged on the country’s population. Second is the share of seats in the National Assembly belonging to each province, which is pegged on each province’s population as a proportion of the total. The third is the delimitation of constituencies on the basis of the population headcount to ensure that there is no great disparity in the number of voters from one constituency to the next. It appears that a consensus exists between all the parties on the first point to freeze the number of seats in the National Assembly for the time being. There’s also limited contention on the second point, except for Sindh where the provincial assembly has expressed its disapproval of the census numbers for the province. The main point of contention is the third — the delimitation of constituencies along the lines suggested by the new data.

There are strong grounds to argue that the elections should go forward on the basis of the 1998 census data to give more time to sort out differences among the parties. Some might argue that the law requires the elections to be held under the latest census information, but that requirement applies to the latest officially published data only. The publication of the latest census data can be delayed till after the elections, yielding enough time to run sample surveys in select areas to verify the findings of the census before finalising it. At this point, the timely conduct of elections is a bigger priority than the verification of census data, and if one of these has to be postponed in favour of the other, the parties should agree that the elections come first.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2017