Delay in the offing?

Published February 3, 2023

WHAT began with conjecture and innuendo now appears to be taking shape. The ground is being prepared for delaying the general elections to the recently dissolved Punjab and KP provincial assemblies.

As per Article 224 of the Constitution, if the National Assembly or a provincial assembly is dissolved, a general election to that legislature must be held within 90 days of its dissolution. On Jan 24, citing the relevant constitutional requirement, the ECP wrote to the Punjab and KP governors proposing April 9 to 13 for elections to the Punjab Assembly and April 15 to 17 for the KP Assembly.

Both governors, however, have declined to give dates for the provincial assembly elections. KP Governor Haji Ghulam Ali, one day after the suicide bombing in Peshawar that killed at least 100 people and injured more than 225, wrote to the ECP advising it, in view of the “alarming law and order situation”, to consult the relevant institutions, including political parties, before fixing a date for the polls.

He reminded the ECP of its duty to ensure that elections were conducted in a fair, free and peaceful manner. Punjab Governor Balighur Rehman in his missive to the ECP has voiced similar caveats, adding the “economic situation” to the reasons why the electoral oversight body should consult “relevant stakeholders” before it announces a date for the polls.

As there seems to be no constitutional provision for delaying the polls to the two assemblies, the governors’ letters to the ECP suggest that the PDM government is considering whether the emergency provisions in the Constitution could afford some room for postponing the exercise.

Suffice it to say, that would require a leap of the imagination as preposterous as that which underpinned the ‘doctrine of necessity’, responsible for many a historical wrong for which we are still paying the price. The political instability in the country is certainly a matter of deep concern. But stability cannot be achieved by extra-constitutional actions or by expediently interpreting constitutional provisions.

There has been enough of the latter in the past few months alone in the tussle for power between the PTI and the other parties. Instead of drifting in uncharted waters, the country must move towards the predictability that the rule of law brings with it.

The cost of holding elections to two provincial assemblies several months before the terms of the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies and the National Assembly expire, is certainly a valid consideration, especially in these straitened times.

It would also lead to the anomalous prospect of two incumbent provincial governments overseeing, within their jurisdictions, general elections to the Lower House when they become due later this year. To address this, there is only one viable solution — early elections across the country.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2023

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