• Commission says it is ‘impossible’ to hold elections given security concerns
• PTI terms cancelling polls after notifying schedule ‘violation of Constitution’

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has put off Punjab Assembly elections by more than five months to Oct 8, citing the deteriorating security situation in the country.

In a late-night order issued on Wednesday, the commission said that after considering the reports, briefing and material brought before it, it has concluded that it is impossible to hold and organise the elections — originally scheduled for April 30 — “honestly, justly, fairly, in a peaceful manner and in accordance with the Constitution and law”.

Therefore, in the exercise of powers conferred upon the ECP 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 the poll date on October 8”, it said.

On March 1, the Supreme Court 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.

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 the elections, the possibility of election officials being kidnapped during polls and recommended that elections not be held at the present time.

The order said that on March 14, the ECP was informed that the Pakistan Army would not be available for poll-related duties due to the prevalent security situation.

Referring to these briefings on the overall security situation in the country, the ECP order said that currently, only one security man 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 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 read.

Reactions

The PTI bitterly criticised the ECP’s move, with the party’s secretary general Asad Umar questioning under which constitutional provision the ECP 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,” PTI Senior Vice President Fawad Chaudhry said in a tweet.

PTI leader Shireen Mazari said the ECP violated Constitution by calling off Punjab elections for which the schedule had bene given and candidates scrutiny was ongoing.

Former PPP senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar described the move as a “blatant mockery of the Constitution”.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), told Dawn that it was an unfortunate situation that the ECP had rescheduled the polls.

“I, however, think that under the law and the circumstances (like the inability of various government agencies to provide funds and security narrated by the ECP), the only remaining course for ECP was to invoke Section 58 of the Elections Act, 2017, and alter the election schedule or give a new schedule for the Punjab Assembly election,” he said.

However, he said the ECP’s decision would almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court.

Muddassir Rizvi of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) said the Election Commission depended on the executive to conduct polls.

“ECP’s decision is compelled by reasons that are beyond its control. Under constitution, all executive authorities are bound to assist the Election Commission to carry out its constitutional responsibilities,” he remarked.

He said the ECP had cited its constitutional and legal powers to reach this decision. “The decision has legal merit, which can only be judged as bona fide by higher courts. Any court decision whether for or against the ECP decision will only deepen the political crisis and polarisation,” he said.

“This is a political dispute which can only be settled by all political parties inside the parliament.”

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2023

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