LAHORE: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has announced holding the much-delayed first phase of party-based local government polls in Punjab on June 9, only a day before the law governing the polls is set to expire.

An official of the ECP says the polls will be conducted under the Local Government Ordinance 2021, which will be completing its second term of life on June 10. It will create a difficult situation for the election body, government as well as contestants/winners of the electoral bout because as per the Constitution, an ordinance can be given extension only once and after that the government has to enact law through the Punjab Assembly to give legal cover to the action taken under the ordinance otherwise the activity shall stand null and void.

The ECP official argues that they have to act under the ‘live’ law and they cannot skip their responsibilities merely on the assumption that the government may not be able to enact the ordinance into a law.

A former Punjab law secretary says the 2019 Local Government Act shall stand revived on June 10 if the government fails to enact a new law to replace the ordinance by that time. “It will definitely create some problems as, besides other things, delimitations in both the laws are different,” he says, requesting not to be named.

Believing that the government has ample time to enact the law by June 9, he is, however, not hopeful that in case of a change of guard in Punjab, like in the centre, the new ruling party will accept the local government scheme given in the ordinance or the earlier 2019 Act. “That means the fate of the winners in the first phase of the polls is doomed before even entering the electoral contest.”

A notification issued by the ECP on Thursday under Article 140(A) of the Constitution and Section 219 of the Election Act 2017 says that 17 out of 36 districts have been selected for the first phase of the polls. These are Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Khanewal, Vehari, Bahawalpur, Sahiwal, Pakpattan, Toba Tek Singh, Chiniot, Khushab, Sialkot, Hafizabad, Mandi Bahauddin, Jhelum and Attock.

As per the election schedule, nominations may be filed from April 21 to 25, scrutiny of the candidatures will be held from April 27 to May 9, appeals against rejection or acceptance of papers may be filed between May 10 and 12 and the same will be decided on May 14.

Candidates/panels may withdraw their papers on May 19, while election symbols to political parties and electoral groups will be allotted on May 20. The polling will be held on June 9.

After consultation with the Punjab government, the ECP had earlier announced on Feb 16 that the first phase of polls in the province would be held on May 29. The ECP had been stressing on the provincial authorities for the earlier enactment of the law and release of Rs9 billion funds the election authority had sought as expenses for conducting the polls.

Under the Election Act, the ECP is bound to give a 45-day schedule for the polling process – from filing of nominations to the scrutiny of papers, adjudication of objections, withdrawal of candidatures, allotment of symbols and polling day.

It had set March 28 as the last date for registration of independent candidates as electoral groups because individuals cannot contest the party-based polls. But the law could not be enacted as per plans as both the PTI-led coalition government and PML-N-led opposition parties were differing on the basic structure of the local governments in the Punjab Assembly’s Standing Committee on Local Government seized with the draft bill.

The enactment of the law lingered on as the ruling PTI was not ready to restore municipal committees in the new proposed system, while the opposition PML-N and PPP as well as junior coalition partner PML-Q were insisting on their introduction so that urban centres in the province were not neglected in the new system.

The two sides were also poles apart on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the electoral contest while the standing committee could not meet since Feb 16.

The ECP had completed the delimitation process under the Local Government Ordinance 2021, which was re-promulgated in the month of March again on the expiry of its first 90-day life.

Meanwhile, the ECP has barred all federal and provincial executive authorities in Punjab from using state resources to influence the election in favour of a particular candidate in the 17 districts. It has also banned all transfers and postings as well as grant of leave without prior ECP approval to a government employee in the said districts.

The election watchdog has also warned government officials against misusing their positions to influence the election results.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2022

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