Electoral reforms

Published May 16, 2022

EARLY elections or not? That is the question. And it seems to be weighing heavy on the mind of everyone in the coalition government, although its stated position thus far is firmly on the side of completing the term and going in for polls sometime next year.

On Wednesday, at a hurriedly called press conference, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari said unequivocally that elections would be held only after electoral reforms and amendments to the NAB law, a process which could take “three or four months”.

Read more: Nawaz to decide next election timing: Maryam

The remark served to ‘correct’ the impression created by Defence Minister Khawaja Asif of a change in stance when he asserted in a BBC Urdu interview earlier that day that the possibility of elections being held even before November could not be ruled out. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman on Thursday echoed Mr Zardari in saying that the legislative changes had to precede the next polls.

There appears no convincing reason for electoral reforms, and the changes to the NAB law even less so, to be a deciding factor where the timing of the polls is concerned. The parties leading the coalition are primarily concerned with rolling back the Elections (Second Amendment) Act, 2021, which provides for electronic voting machines and e-voting for overseas Pakistanis. But this is a task easily achieved in a situation where the government collectively enjoys a majority in both houses of parliament, so what is it waiting for? Critics may argue that rolling back the amendments with only a rump opposition in the Lower House after the mass resignations of 123 PTI MNAs would detract from the legitimacy of the exercise.

However, the passage of the legislation was in itself controversial, being among the 33 bills that the PTI government bulldozed through in a joint sitting on Nov 17 last year. As to amendments to the NAB law, having nothing to do with the electoral exercise, they can be undertaken by those who form the next elected government. All in all, Mr Zardari — who has made no secret of his preference for elections in 2023 — and Maulana Fazlur Rehman seem to be playing for time in order to avoid early polls.

Nevertheless, a sharp divergence of views on the issue has come to the fore in recent days, with Maryam Nawaz, Ahsan Iqbal and Ishaq Dar among core PML-N leaders speaking in favour of seeking the people’s mandate sooner rather than later. That the difficult decisions needed immediately to stabilise the dire economic situation may exact a significant political cost from those in the coalition who have the most to lose, is a very real concern.

Rather than flounder in indecision, calling early elections could be a less risky strategy. That way a caretaker government, which by definition has least skin in the game, in its 90-day tenure could take the unpopular decisions the moment calls for.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2022

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