ALTHOUGH the question of elections tends to dominate nearly every political discussion in the country nowadays, the odds seem to be stacked against polls being held anytime soon, the closer the incumbent government comes to the end of its term.
The executive seems to be using its last days in power to push through legislation and development projects willy-nilly, and with the passage of a controversial amendment expanding the powers of the caretaker government, the likelihood of elections being held within the 60 or 90-day period appears to be dwindling.
According to Article 224 of the Constitution, “A general election to the National Assembly or a provincial assembly shall be held within a period of sixty days immediately following the day on which the term of the assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been sooner dissolved”.
In case of early dissolution, the Election Commission of Pakistan is bound to hold the general elections within a period of ninety days after the dissolution, according to Article 224(2).
Delaying the polls will lead the country into “dangerous territory”, says Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) President Ahmad Bilal Mahboob.
Questioning the need to empower the caretaker setup, which has a constitutionally-mandated life of either 60 or 90 days, Mr Mahboob notes that interim governments already have powers to make decisions of an urgent nature.
He feels that the fresh amendment opens up the possibility that the tenure of the caretaker set-up may be extended, as and when required.
In his view, the move piloted by the PML-N seems to have the blessing of the establishment, but other allies such as the PPP may have been kept out of the loop.
He posits that floating the name of PML-N stalwart Ishaq Dar for the post of interim prime minister could be an indicator that elections may not be held within 60 or 90 days.
“In case the polls are delayed, the PML-N wants to have its man in the saddle and it has revealed its hand by proposing the name of Mr Dar,” he maintains.
Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that revealing Mr Dar as a potential candidate for the interim PM’s slot has backfired, and many party leaders are now attempting to row back his candidature.
The latest to do so was Rana Sanaullah, who claimed during a televised interview on Friday that Mr Dar’s name was “neither suggested nor rejected”.
Noted political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi, who has served as a former caretaker chief minister in Punjab, doubts the ‘purity’ of the intentions behind empowering the caretaker set-up, saying that delaying the polls will be a violation of the Constitution.
“The job of the caretakers is to hold polls, either in 60 or 90 days, not to sign new international agreements. Rather, no international body is interested in entering into any agreement with a caretaker government around the world.”
He maintains that there seems to be no call for such an amendment, that is, if elections are to be held within 60 or 90 days. With its passage, however, it seems that this has been done to keep options open in case the elections don’t yield the ‘desired results’.
In Dr Rizvi’s opinion, both the ruling party and the military establishment appear to be on the same page on this piece of legislation.
“Currently, several options are being reviewed and the decision whether to hold elections or not will be taken in mid-August,” he predicts.
For its part, the opposition PTI sees itself as the intended target of the amended Elections Act, terming it among a number of contingency plans being put in place to stop the Imran Khan-led party from returning to power.
In fact, party spokesperson Raoof Hassan contends that the establishment and the government want to have more than one option at their disposal if things do not go their way and Mr Khan is not contained ahead of the elections.
“They can make an excuse about the poor economy to defer the elections,” he says. However, he is somewhat optimistic about the imminent changing of the guard at the apex court.
“They [the powers that be] are also waiting for a change of command in the Supreme Court, but I have a feeling that Justice Qazi Faiz Essa will give them a shock,” Mr Hasan says when asked to explain his optimism.
While no leaders from the PPP or PML-N were willing to speak on the record, a source close to the Sharif family claimed that elections would only be held “once Imran Khan goes to jail”.
“An understanding was reached between the Sharifs and the establishment, and the amendment is a result of that,” the source said.
However, it is the PML-N’s apparent closeness with the powers that be which is making the PPP rather uncomfortable, even if they choose not to admit it out loud.
Observers feel that the severity of the party’s reaction to the floating of Ishaq Dar’s name as a candidate for interim PM speaks to their apprehensions, and that is why they have suggested that a neutral ‘seasoned politician’ should be considered for the job.
However, insiders insist that Nawaz Sharif has no problem with polls being delayed, as long as they have someone ‘trustworthy’ in the driver’s seat during the transition period.
When asked to comment on whether the party is waiting for Imran Khan to be jailed before announcing polls, PM’s aide and PML-N leader Attaullah Tarar told Dawn that the cases against the PTI chief have nothing to do with the elections.
“Each case has its own merits and procedures to be followed… and each has its own timeline for conclusion. PTI is deploying delay tactics based on technicalities, which is to their own detriment.”
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2023