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Playing by the rules

November 21, 2017

THE National Assembly passed the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2017 on Thursday. The Senate wanted to do the same thing the next day but fell short of the required numbers. It is likely the bill will be passed in the upper house in the next few days, thus removing the biggest obstacle in the way of delimitation of electoral constituencies before the general election of 2018.

This is, indeed, an important piece of legislation not only from the point of view of ensuring timely elections but also because delimitation is a crucial step in the electoral cycle. Read this together with the fact that since the introduction of democracy in 1970, the delimitation exercise has never been conducted under a democratic setup barring the one done before the 1977 elections after which Gen Zia imposed martial law.

In other words, the playing field for electoral contests has always been prepared by the military establishment. They did that by exercising their authority and not by following the rules. Gen Zia decided to add seven more seats to the 200-member National Assembly and arbitrarily gave four to Balochistan, two to Karachi and one to Sukkur division.

More importantly, delimitation before the 1985 elections was not done on the basis of the previous census, as required by the Constitution, though the census had already been conducted in 1981. Instead, the general issued an ordinance declaring ‘the last census’ meant the one conducted in 1972!

Delimitation has the potential of raising the political temperature in the pre-election period.

President Ghulam Ishaq Khan revoked that for the next delimitation held before the 1988 general elections, but after the Election Commission published the preliminary delimitation done on the basis of the 1981 census, he too issued an ordinance declaring that for the purposes of seat allocation for Fata, the ‘last census’ would continue to mean the 1972 one. That shows how easy it was for the authorities then to flout the rules.

Delimitation is, however, not all about which province gets how many seats in the national legislature; the demarcation of boundaries within provinces and districts can be instrumental in dividing or uniting ethnolinguistic, political or religious groups. The clubbing together of their pockets of population in a certain manner can have a make-or-break impact on electoral performance.

After the dismissal of the first Benazir Bhutto government in 1990, the boundaries of only four national constituencies were changed. These ‘incidentally’ fell within the old district of Nawabshah that included the area of caretaker prime minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi. His ‘party’, IJI, took away two of the district’s four seats from his rival Benazir’s party in the 1990 elections though it could not show similar performance elsewhere in Sindh.

Gen Musharraf had all the space one can ask for to redraw the entire electoral map of the country. He had raised the total number of seats in the legislatures which changed the allocations of all provinces, areas and districts. This delimitation too was conducted under his Legal Framework Order as the Constitution was in abeyance.

Almost the same space is available to the present authorities. Following the new census and creation of a number of new districts all electoral constituencies are likely to go through substantial changes. The impact on contests in the coming elections will be telling and this is obviously giving many sleepless nights.

Punjab will have to adjust to the loss of seven general seats to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Islamabad. There will be a southward movement of seats within Punjab also as some Seraiki-majority districts will gain seats at the cost of central Punjab districts.

Faisalabad, Okara, Sahiwal, Narowal and the old districts of Jhang and Sheikhupura will be clear losers. It will impact the districts’ politics. Take for example Okara district that has five seats in the National Assembly; its share after delimitation will be reduced to four. The division of Okara district into four constituencies, instead of the existing five, will obviously create losers, and possibly some gainers. Since all five of these currently belong to the PML-N, the changes will lead to intra-party tussles that may have implications on inter-party contests in the district in the upcoming elections.

In many instances, constituency boundaries within a district will change even if its seat share remains the same. Larkana district offers a good example. It had four seats but then Qambar Shahdadkot district was carved out of it and a part of Larkana was also merged with Shikarpur, and another part of Shikarpur was made part of the Larkana. This made two of the four seats of old Larkana district become multi-district. In the new delimitation, as per the rules, two seats will have to wholly fall within Larkana and another two in Qambar Shahdadkot. That will substantially alter the boundaries of all four constituencies of the old Larkana district. The PPP had secured 35, 51, 72 and 55 per cent of the polled votes to win all of these (NA 204 to 207) in 2013. The new demarcation is likely to have an impact on these percentages and potentially on the outcome too.

Delimitation in Karachi will pose its own set of challenges. As populations of various ethnic groups are concentrated in different localities, the boundaries that divide or unite one will be contested by the other.

Delimitation thus has the potential of raising the political temperature in the pre-election period which can be blown to the level of a ‘crisis’, at least in evening talk shows.

But there are promising signs too. The Punjab-centric PML-N has fully facilitated delimitation despite its home province losing seats and a majority of those to KP ruled by its arch rival. Neither have the opposition parties been unreasonable. This is a sign of political maturity.

An even more remarkable feat is the passage of the Elections Act 2017 ensuring the full-fledged return of rules-based delimitation. The law and rules developed by the Election Commission have added measures to ensure transparency and accountability.

This will be the first time in our chequered electoral history when the political parties have themselves decided the rules of the game and the playing field for the upcoming contests has also been prepared under a democratic setup. We may experience some rough patches here and there, but if our polity manages to pass this test in a reasonably peaceful manner, it will be a big step forward for democracy.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2017