• ISI representative suggests delaying elections for three to four months
• IB official talks about presence of armed militants in Punjab
• Meeting with defence ministry postponed to next week

ISLAMABAD: Clouds of uncertainty overhang the polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with military and civilian intelligence agencies joining the chorus of voices opposing general elections in the two provinces at this point in time.

An important meeting of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was held on Friday to discuss security arrangements for the general elections for the two provincial assemblies.

Chief Election Commis­sioner Sikandar Sultan Raja chaired the meeting, which was attended by ECP officials and representatives from the Inter-Services Inte­lli­gence (ISI), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and counterterrorism departments (CTDs) of the two provinces.

Sources privy to the developments told Dawn that all the representatives of intelligence agencies and CTDs were unanimous in their opinion that the time was not ripe for elections because of a fresh wave of terrorism, and intelligence reports suggesting that more attacks were possible in the two provinces.

An ISI representative sought the postponement of polls for three to four months because of the ongoing war against terrorism. IB’s joint director for Punjab talked about the presence of armed militants from Afghanistan in Punjab.

Painting a bleak picture, they said the country was passing through a difficult security situation, as evidenced by a recent spike in terrorism incidents. The meeting was told that in view of the multi-dimensional security concerns, going to general polls could be a big risk.

The ECP told the participants that holding general polls for the two provincial assemblies was a constitutional obligation. It also referred to the recent judgement of the Supreme Court, which ruled that the elections should take place within the stipulated timeframe of 90 days but allowed the barest minimum delay in case of practical difficulties.

A press release issued by the ECP said the commission was briefed in detail about the prevailing law and order situation in Punjab and KP and other related matters. It said the purpose of the briefing was to ensure that peaceful elections are conducted in the two provinces.

Towards the end of the meeting, the chief election commissioner thanked the participants and said the briefing would help it take different decisions for holding peaceful elections.

A meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Defence and Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMOs) was also supposed to take place on Friday, but it could not happen.

An ECP official said the meeting would now take place on March 14 — the day when the commission has also invited the KP governor for consultation on an election date for the provincial assembly.

Punjab and KP assemblies were dissolved on Jan 14 and Jan 18, respectively. Under the law, the elections are to be held within 90 days of the assembly’s dissolution. The ECP, however, has been facing resistance from all sides from day one.

On Jan 25, the ECP proposed conducting polls for the two legislatures between April 9 and 17.

In separate letters sent to principal secretaries of the two provinces, the ECP had suggested elections in Punjab between April 9 and 13, and in KP between April 15 and 17, pointing out that these could not be taken beyond April 13 for Punjab and April 17 for KP.

In their responses, the two governors declined to give dates for general elections to the provincial assemblies, advising the electoral watchdog to consult relevant authorities and take stock of the current security and economic situation before deciding in this regard.

The relevant ministries also expressed an inability to provide the funds required for funds owing to the economic crunch and security personnel for election duties due to the alarming security situation.

Another challenge faced by the ECP was the position taken by the Punjab governor that he would not give an election date as he did not dissolve the assembly.

Another interesting twist to the story was President Arif Alvi’s unilateral decision to fix April 9 as the election date after the ECP turned down his invitation for consultation.

In a split verdict on March 1, the Supreme Court directed the ECP to consult with President Alvi for polls in Punjab and Governor Ghulam Ali for elections in KP, so that polls could be held within the stipulated time of 90 days, giving room for a minimum possible delay.

Following the Supreme Court’s verdict, the ECP wrote to the president proposing elections to the Punjab Assembly between April 30 and May 7, and the president fixed April 30 as the poll date the same day, followed by the issuance of a schedule for elections by the ECP.

The ECP had also sent a letter to the KP governor and a team nominated by the commission had met him for consultation at his invitation. However, apparently as a delaying tactic, the governor said he would come to the ECP next week for final consultation.

Meanwhile, going against its earlier decision to approach the provincial high courts of the two provinces to spare judicial officers for election duties, the commission has notified returning officers, and assistant and district returning officers from the bureaucracy for the general elections in Punjab. Accordingly, most of them are from the district administration.

The commission has also appointed Saeed Gul, a provincial election commissioner, as returning officer for women and minority seats.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2023

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