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Polls in the balance

November 24, 2017

WITH the stakes as high as they are, it is puzzling to see the PPP continuing to voice reservations about the 24th Constitutional Amendment Bill that will empower the Election Commission of Pakistan to begin the process of delimitation of constituencies based on the provisional results of the latest census. For the third time in a row, the bill was on the agenda of the Senate on Wednesday, but there was no vote because not enough senators were present. The PPP is the only major party now actively voicing reservations about the delimitation exercise, and the Senate chairman, who belongs to the PPP, warned about the impact that further delays in the passage of the legislation could have on the timely conduct of the general election. The chairman, Raza Rabbani, is a powerful voice in Pakistan’s politics, and widely regarded as a man of conscience and integrity. His warning to his own party, which included a reference to the PPP’s compromise on the accountability bill as well, should be taken seriously.

As far as it can be discerned, there appears to be one key sticking point: who will be the ‘third party’ to conduct the audit of the 5pc census blocks that has been agreed upon? In addition, the PPP’s parliamentary leader in the Senate, Taj Haider, has pointed to indications that the government may be trying to retreat from its commitment to audit census results in 5pc of the census blocks, even though the prime minister himself had given the assurance on the floor of the house that it stood by its commitment. Beyond this, the only other objection left is that the PML-N is not putting in enough effort to turn out the vote for the bill in the Senate given five of its own senators were absent when the bill came up.

The first reservation is the most serious one and it is surprising that the parties had not agreed as to who the third party would be before forging this consensus of carrying out an audit. In fact, what is being called an audit is a re-verification exercise where enumerators will be sent out into the field one more time to count the population in 5pc of the census blocks. Some believe the army should carry out the exercise, while others believe it should be an international organisation like the UN. Another important point that the parties seem to have not thought through is what will happen in the event the audit throws up discrepancies with regard to the original results. With much left to work out before the delimitation exercise can even begin, it is worthwhile to expedite the process. All parties should heed the counsel of Mr Rabbani, and work in good faith to see this process through.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2017