The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Wednesday postponed the Punjab elections, originally scheduled for April 30, till October 8.
In the order, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the ECP said that in exercise of the powers conferred upon it by Article 218(3) read with Section 58 and Section 8(c) of the Elections Act, 2017, the commission “hereby withdraws the election programme […] and fresh schedule will be issued in due course of time with poll date on October 8”.
On March 1, the Supreme Court had ruled that the elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies should be held within the stipulated period of 90 days. It had, however, allowed the ECP to propose a poll date that deviates from the 90-day deadline by the “barest minimum”, in case of any practical difficulty.
On Mar 10, the ECP later wrote separate letters to the president and the KP governor. In the letter to President Dr Arif Alvi, the electoral watchdog proposed dates between April 30 and May 7 for the elections. Alvi later the same day announced that elections in Punjab will be held on April 30.
The order said that the ECP approached the interior and defence ministries in February for the deployment of the army and Rangers in view of the “heightened security situation in the province and the recent terrorist wave”.
It added that the Punjab chief secretary and police chief were also summoned on February 8 for a briefing on the prevailing law and order situation, adding that the officials reported on the spate of terrorist attacks in the province since January, prevention of over 213 terrorist attacks in the province in the past two months, the “serious live terrorism threats” present, the cleanup operations under way for eradicating terrorists that would take four to five months and shortfall of 386,623 police personnel for election duty.
The order said that the interior ministry also conveyed to the ECP on Feb 8 that the deployment of civil and armed forces would not be possible due to the “spike in incidents of terrorism across the country” and threat alerts from intelligence agencies.
After the apex court’s order, the ECP said it again approached the interior and finance ministries on March 9 regarding conducting polls and their security arrangements to which it was informed that “elections are not possible due to deteriorating law and order situation, charged political environment, serious threat to politicians” while the finance secretary conveyed that it would be “very difficult” for the federal government to provide polling funds.
The ECP said that it convened a meeting with intelligence and security officials from Punjab and KP on March 10 and was apprised about their inability to help the commission in conducting elections, the possibility of election officials being kidnapped during polls and recommended that elections not be held at the present time.
The order added that on March 14 the ECP was informed that the Pakistan Army will not be available for poll-related duties due to the prevalent security situation within the country and on the borders while the Punjab chief secretary “categorically stated” that the provincial government would not be able to provide funds for the elections and foolproof security could not be assured with the assistance of the armed forces to the police.
Referring to the above briefings on the overall security situation in the country, the ECP order said that currently, only one security personnel on average was available per polling station due to a “massive shortfall in police personnel” and the non-provision of army personnel as a static force.
“The commission is unable to make alternate arrangements to ensure security of the election material, polling staff, voters and the candidates,” the order reads.
It added that the finance ministry had also shown an “inability to release funds due to financial crunch and unprecedented economic crisis in the country”.
The order pointed out that despite the ECP’s best efforts, the executive authorities and federal and provincial governments were not able to assist the electoral body in conducting free, fair and transparent elections in Punjab.
It added that after the briefings from the law enforcement agencies and federal ministries, the ECP had convened meetings on March 20, 21 and 22 to “deliberate extensively” on the matter of the Punjab elections.
“The commission after considering the reports, briefing and material brought before it, has arrived at the just conclusion that it is not possible to hold and organise the elections honestly, justly, fairly in a peaceful manner and in accordance with the Constitution and the law,” the order reads.
‘End of rule of law’
The PTI and its leaders lashed out at the ECP’s move with party chairman Imran Khan saying it violated the Constitution and termed it the “end of rule of law in Pakistan”.
“Today everyone must stand behind the legal community — the judiciary & lawyers — with expectation that they will protect Constitution.”
PTI Secretary General Asad Umar questioned under which constitutional provision the commission had changed the date when its stance in the courts was that it did not have the authority to announce the election date.
“The Constitution and the Supreme Court have been effectively abolished, Pakistan is now without a constitution,” said PTI Senior Vice President Fawad Chaudhry.
PTI Senator Faisal Javed said it was the beginning of a “constitutional war” and called for the Punjab caretaker government to be immediately sacked.
“ECP violates Constitution by calling off Punjab elections for which schedule given and candidates scrutiny ongoing. All eyes on SC with expectation it will ensure Constitution upheld and elections on as per SC order and Constitution. Is it first step towards overtly ending democracy?” noted senior PTI leader Shireen Mazari.
Former PPP senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar termed the move a “blatant mockery of the Constitution”.
Punjab, KP election limbo
In a mammoth public gathering in November last year, former prime minister Imran Khan had announced that his party would disassociate itself from the “current corrupt political system” by quitting the two provincial assemblies where PTI was in power.
Despite several obstacles put up by the coalition government, the 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 after the dissolution of assemblies.
That means April 14 and April 17 were the deadlines for holding general elections to Punjab and KP assemblies, but the two governors instead of setting dates for elections after receiving the proposal from the ECP had advised the commission to consult stakeholders.
Chief secretaries and inspectors-general of the two provinces during meetings with the ECP had said they were short of police force and talked of terrorism threats, making out a case for putting off elections.
The finance division had also expressed its inability to provide funds and the interior ministry told the ECP that the army and civil armed forces will not be available.
On Feb 17, President Alvi had invited Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja for an urgent meeting regarding consultations on election dates but the ECP told him he had no role in the announcement of dates for general elections to provincial assemblies and the commission was aware of its constitutional obligation in this regard.
Subsequently, the president unilaterally announced April 9 as the date for holding general elections for the Punjab and KP assemblies.
The move drew sharp criticism from his political opponents, who accused him of acting like a PTI worker while the ECP said it would announce the poll schedule only after the “competent authority” fixes the date.
Meanwhile, over the past few months, the law and order situation in the country has worsened, with terrorist groups executing attacks with near impunity across the country.
Since the talks with the banned militant group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) broke down in November, the outfit has intensified its attacks, particularly targeting the police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas bordering Afghanistan. Insurgents in Balochistan have also stepped up their violent activities and formalised a nexus with the TTP.
According to statistics released by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think-tank, January 2023 remained one of the deadliest months since July 2018, as 134 people lost their lives — a 139 per cent spike — and 254 received injuries in at least 44 militant attacks across the country.