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Delayed election concerns

December 14, 2017

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DO parliamentary parties want a general election next August or are they willing to contemplate an electoral delay that potentially undermines the democratic process? The mysterious wrangling over a delimitation bill in parliament — necessary to reflect the results of the latest census and a precondition for the ECP to begin the months-long task of preparing up-to-date electoral rolls — is still threatening to prevent an on-time general election taking place next August and the politics of it is increasingly confounding. The PML-N government has repeatedly stressed that it intends to complete its term, indicating its preference for a general election next August. There could be a constitutional possibility of an election next September if the PML-N dissolved the National Assembly even a day before it completes its term, though that may not be the right precedent to set. But an August election is perilously close to becoming administratively impossible or democratically undesirable, if it means continuing with constituency delimitations according to the 1998 census.

The dispute ostensibly is inter-provincial and intra-province. Representatives of Sindh have argued that the census results deliberately suppressed the overall population figures for the province, while the perennial urban-rural divide in the province has been exacerbated by population growth numbers for Karachi that appear to fly in the face of visible reality. While some of the concerns expressed may be legitimate and the Council of Common Interests has tried to address the problem, it appears the parliamentary delay is tied to other matters of politics in the country. With the PML-N government under pressure on a number of fronts, a delay in elections may harm the party the most. Perhaps, then, there is cynical political bargaining at work. But the PML-N government has not acquitted itself well thus far either. Poor parliamentary management and sloppy negotiations by the government appear to have brought the country to the brink of a fresh crisis.

The political parties involved in the extreme brinkmanship ought to consider that if the delimitation issue is not addressed immediately, other institutions of state may step in and take control of matters. After all, the latest census only became a reality because the Supreme Court passed an order and energetically followed up on it. If the delimitation issue and the timing of the general election are also decided in forums other than parliament and by institutions that are designed to be apolitical, the democratic process may suffer a further blow. The tardiness of the PML-N government and the willingness of other parties to delay parliamentary approval are sending the wrong signal at a time when the democratic process needs a boost and clear leadership by the political class. Parliament has handled more complicated legislation and political deal-making than what a delimitation bill should require. There is no justification for the inordinate delay. Parliament must pass the delimitation bill quickly.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2017