A FACTOR critical in deciding the outcome of an election is the time when it is held. The power to fix the election schedule is, therefore, considered important in democracies.
Over a span of 11 years, the British parliament has twice altered the law and replaced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, 2022, transferring the power to prematurely dissolve the House of Commons and call early elections from the two-third majority of the House to the prime minister.
The Pakistani Constitution also gives the power to the prime minister to prematurely dissolve the National Assembly and call elections.
At the centre of the current political turmoil in Pakistan is ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s demand to immediately dissolve the National Assembly and hold general elections — a proposition not acceptable to the current government.
The PTI feels that it enjoys a high degree of popularity at the moment and an early election will more likely return it to power; and, conversely, a delay in election to the scheduled time in 2023 may dilute its chances of victory as a number of scandals are being discovered and criminal cases instituted against the former prime minister and his party colleagues which may hurt Imran Khan’s popularity.
Except for the premature dissolution of the assemblies and the subsequent early election, which are totally dependent on the leader of each House, the principle governing the election schedule is clearly laid down in the Constitution and the laws so that partisan considerations should not be able to influence the electoral outcome.
According to Article 224(1) of the Constitution, the general election to the National Assembly or a provincial assembly shall be held within 60 days, immediately following the day on which the term of the assembly is due to expire. According to Article 224(2), if an assembly is prematurely dissolved, election to the dissolved assembly is to be held within 90 days. Within the time frame specified in the Constitution, the president is to fix the exact date of the election after consultation with the Election Commission in accordance with Section 57 of the Elections Act, 2017. Under extraordinary circumstances, like those faced by the country in 2007 after the assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, the Election Commission can alter the election programme and inform the president accordingly, as provided in Section 58(1) of the Elections Act, 2017.
The schedule of by-elections is governed by Article 224(4) of the Constitution, according to which election to a vacant seat should be held within 60 days of the occurrence of the vacancy.
The ECP’s decision not to postpone by-elections and LG polls establishes its authority.
Sadly, the schedule of the local government election is not governed by the Constitution and has been left exclusively to the local government law of the concerned province to decide the term of the local government and the time within which the election of a new local government has to take place after its term expires.
India learnt a lesson and 42 years after it had framed its constitution, it brought in two detailed constitutional amendments in 1993 to define some basic features including the term of the local government and the period within which to hold the next election.
The absence of a constitutional provision is one of the reasons for the lack of continuity of local governments in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, the duration of local governments varies from four to five years in various provinces and Islamabad. The election for the new local government has to take place within 120 days after the expiry of the term of the local government.
With this background, we can better understand the current controversy over the schedule of National Assembly by-elections and some local government elections and form a fair opinion about the positions taken by the federal and provincial governments on the one hand and the Election Commission on the other.
The Speaker of the National Assembly had accepted the resignation of 11 members of the National Assembly on July 28 and forwarded the notification to the ECP, which initially fixed Sept 11 and 25 as the dates of the by-elections which was well within the 60-day constitutional limit. Later, the elections were postponed by the ECP to Oct 16 because the government expressed its inability to provide the required number of security personnel due to their flood relief work.
The PTI criticised this as, according to them, the postponement was meant to deny them certain victory. The ECP, in fact, should have refused to accept the provincial government’s justification for postponement, and instead, held the polls in stages so that the need for staff at any given day would have been considerably reduced.
Read: Election discontent
The second phase of the Sindh local government elections in Karachi and Hyderabad divisions was also postponed twice and was finally scheduled for Oct 23.
The federal interior ministry requested the ECP to further postpone the by-elections for 90 days as security staff would be busy dealing with the aftermath of the floods and the expected PTI long march. The Sindh government also sought further postponement of the second phase of the local government election mainly on account of staff being busy with flood relief duties.
The ECP, after consultation with the federal and provincial governments, has decided against postponing the Assembly by-elections and the second phase of the local government polls in Sindh.
This is a very welcome decision because it establishes the supremacy and authority of the ECP in deciding the dates of elections. Both the federal and provincial governments may have their political interests in mind while influencing the election date.
It is commonly believed that the ruling coalition in the federal government may not do well in the upcoming by-elections and similar views have been expressed about the PPP’s prospects in the local government poll in Sindh’s urban areas.
Allowing the governments to repeatedly influence election dates would have created an unhealthy precedent and an impression of the ECP’s dependence on them for setting the date. The ECP decision should help strengthen public trust in the election management body.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2022