ISLAMABAD: The top brass of the three major parties in the ruling alliance on Thursday put their heads together at PM House to discuss possible strategies for the upcoming by-polls on vacant National Assembly (NA) seats, as well as elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies, with the possibility of delaying the electoral exercises being discussed as one of the options.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who is also president of the PML-N, met with PPP leader Asif Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman to “discuss the prevailing overall political situation in the country,” according to an official announcement.
This was for the second straight day that the prime minister and his close aides consulted major allies on the “political and economic issues”, after a detailed meeting with Mr Zardari on Wednesday.
The huddles come after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) suggested elections in Punjab between April 9 and 13, and in KP between April 15 and 17. Similarly, the ECP is also gearing up for the by-elections on 93 NA seats, which fell vacant after the acceptance of PTI lawmakers’ resignations.
Sources say ‘N’ has qualms about rushing into polls at a time when PTI’s star is on the rise; Marriyum claims party ready for elections
According to sources in the ruling alliance, the leadership’s main focus in the two meetings was the upcoming elections in Punjab and KP and the economic challenges being faced by the country. They said the possibility of postponing the elections in both provinces also came under discussion.
The proposal, they said, came from the PML-N, which believed that it was not an appropriate time for the party to go into elections, especially in Punjab, where it was struggling to gain ground due to internal wrangling within the party’s ranks, as well as reeling from the fallout of the dire economic and energy situation in the country.
The PML-N, they said, had apprehensions about the outcome of elections held in the absence of party supremo Nawaz Sharif. Moreover, the PML-N is yet to settle on a narrative to go into elections at a time when PTI’s star is on the rise, helped by co-opting the PML-N’s anti-establishment narrative.
“Yes, the issue [of delay in the elections] came under discussion,” said a senior politician who was part of these consultations. However, he claimed, a final decision would be taken after some more meetings, once the parties had a chance to hold internal brainstorming sessions.
He said the leadership discussed the option of delaying the elections on the pretext of the delay in the population census. Mr Zardari, however, was not convinced and sought some more time to consider the proposal, he said.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has already delayed the launch of the country’s first-ever digital census by a month, citing “unavoidable circumstances” and “ground realities”. Earlier scheduled for Feb 1, the census will now begin from March 1 and will continue for a month.
In October 2021, the previous PTI government green-lit the digital census and scheduled it for Oct 2022, which was then deferred to February 2023.
A senior PPP leader privy to developments told Dawn on condition of anonymity that their party was not in favour of delaying the polls, since such a move could prove “counterproductive”. This could trigger a new political crisis, as well as strengthening the PTI’s position which had been effectively telling the people that the parties in the ruling coalition were running away polls, he said.
He was of the view that the by-polls on the NA seats and the elections in the provinces were two different issues and had different implications.
He did not rule out the possibility of boycotting the NA by-polls, stating that the party leadership believed that this way, they could expose the PTI’s “double standards”, as it would be contesting for the same seats that they had recently quit.
He said if Imran Khan decided to contest on multiple seats again, it would also go against the PTI as the party would only be able to claim one seat in the house and would not be able to make any claim on the office of opposition leader.
When contacted, PPP secretary general Farhatullah Babar refused to comment, saying simply that the party would come up with a clear stance on these issues after some internal brainstorming.
On the other hand, Federal Minister for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb refuted reports that the PML-N was planning to delay the polls.
“We are ready for the elections, Insha Allah, and will be announcing parliamentary boards in a day,” she told Dawn.
Ms Aurangzeb said party supremo Nawaz Sharif had already instructed PM Shehbaz to prepare for the elections.
Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency Ahmed Bilal Mehboob told Dawn that technically, the government might be able to delay the polls owing to the delay in the census, but the matter would ultimately go to court. He was of the view that if such a move was also endorsed by the courts, then it would perhaps become “politically acceptable” to all.
“Holding elections within 90 days is a constitutional requirement, whereas holding fresh elections under a new census will be an administrative decision of the Council of Common Interests (CII), which is on a lower pedestal than the Constitution,” he said, adding: “The constitutional requirement is supreme and, therefore, holding the election in 90 days will become the supreme requirement of the law and constitution.”
Similarly, Free and Fair Election Network’s Mudassir Rizvi told Dawn he did not see any reason to delay the elections as delimitation had already been carried out on the basis of the previous census, held in 2017. He was of the view that any such move by the government could create a new constitutional crisis in the country.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2023
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