The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Tuesday indicated that holding general elections may not be possible before May 2023 as it outlined the timeline of processes — including the census and delimitation — that it said must be conducted before the country can go to polls.

In a press release issued by the body's Media Coordination and Outreach Wing, the commission said that it had received a letter from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) on April 18 stating that the seventh population and housing census would be initiated from August 1.

According to the statement, the ECP would be provided the results of the fresh census on December 31.

In such a scenario, the delimitation of constituencies being conducted by the ECP on the basis of the 2017 census would become "irrelevant" and the electoral watchdog would be bound by the Constitution to start the process anew from January 1, 2023 — which would require at least four months.

"Similarly, electoral lists will also need to be reviewed," the press release added.

The electoral watchdog, constituted under Article 218 of the Constitution, is tasked with delimiting the national and provincial level constituencies. The ECP, per the Election Act 2017, is legally bound to start the delimitation process after every census and at least four months prior to the scheduled polling day.

Earlier this month, the commission had ordered delimitation of National and provincial assembly constituencies on a war-footing, without waiting for the digital census to commence. Subsequently, it had announ­ced the delimitation schedule, freezing the boundaries of administrative units across the country.

The schedule came days after the ECP had the expressed inability to conduct general elections before October, citing legal hitches including absence of delimitation, an essential prerequisite for polls, inviting scathing criticism from the then ruling PTI.

The commission had earlier blamed the PTI government for not cooperating and delaying the digital census, which subsequently led to a delay in delimitation.

Response to criticism

Responding to recent criticism, the ECP said it was a legal institution that carried out its constitutional responsibilities with complete impartiality and would continue to do so in the country's interest without any pressure.

Regarding the delay in the action taken against PTI dissidents, the body said it had issued notices to 46 members of the national and Punjab assemblies and asked them to appear before it on April 28 and May 6 respectively.

Commenting on the foreign funding cases, the ECP "strictly rejected" what it said were "irresponsible statements from some quarters regarding delays in hearing the foreign funding cases".

It said the ECP's scrutiny committee was continuing to work on references against foreign funding allegedly received by the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP. The ECP said the case against the PTI was in its final stages, with final arguments being given.

The commission added that it had given the PTI counsel from April 27 to April 29 for the final arguments in the case. Similarly, it said, the scrutiny committee has fixed May 9 for taking up the cases against the PPP and the PML-N's and summoned the necessary records.

The ECP said it had also summoned a report on case proceedings from the scrutiny committee chairman on April 28. The body blamed the political parties for any delays caused in the hearings and proceedings for the various foreign funding cases.

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