Polls not possible this year after ECP decision

Published August 18, 2023
Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Pakistan’s election commission building in Islamabad on August 2. — AFP
Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Pakistan’s election commission building in Islamabad on August 2. — AFP

• Election watchdog decides to redraw constituencies; boundaries of administrative units stand frozen
• Preliminary delimitation expected by October 9; final list to be issued on December 14
• Incensed PTI to approach SC against move

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) expects to complete the process of fresh delimitation of national and provincial assembly constituencies by December 14 — over a month beyond the constitutionally-mandated deadline for conducting general elections in the country.

Thursday’s announcement of the schedule for carrying out the delimitation exercise, necessitated by the recent approval of the census results by the Council of Common Interests, effectively means that elections cannot be held in 2023.

The decision was made public soon after some media outlets reported that Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja met Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial to discuss the poll-related matters. However, this development could not be independently verified by Dawn.

The decision comes ten days after the official results of census were notified and a week after the dissolution of the National Assembly.

Article 224 of the Constitution binds the watchdog to conduct the general elections within 90 days of the assembly’s dissolution.

Section 17(2) of the Elections Act, on the other hand, reads, “The commission shall delimit constituencies after every census is officially published.”

The ECP’s decision will not only be a violation of the Constitution, but also its stated position that general polls will be held on the basis of old delimitation.

“The Commission successfully completed the delimitation process after adopting all legal measures enshrined in the Elections Act and the Rules, 2017 and published final delimitation of constituencies on 5 August, 2022. Subsequently due to creation of new districts and other administrative units in the provinces, the commission under section 22 read with Rule 15 re-described the limits of constituencies for public convenience.

“The general elections-2023 to the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies will be conducted as per the limits of the constituencies published by the Commission on 5th August 2022,” the ECP had said in its action plan for general polls, a copy of which is available with Dawn. The plan was published in May.

Interestingly, an ECP official told Dawn that the commission is not legally bound to “immediately” carry out fresh delimitation of constituencies after the official notification of census results. He pointed out that official notification of the final results of the previous census had been issued in 2021, while the ECP had published limits of constituencies in August 2022.

Election to Senate

While it is certain that polls will be delayed, it is yet to be seen if these can be held before the next Senate elections. Half of the members of the Senate will retire on March 11, and the upper house of parliament will become incomplete.

Leader of Opposition in the last National Assembly Raja Riaz recently claimed that “elders” had decided that elections would be held in February 2024.

“Elections will be held a week before or after February 15, 2024,” he told a private TV channel.

On Tuesday, PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah said party supremo Nawaz Sharif was confident that elections would be held in February next year. Talking to a news TV channel, the former interior minister said he was sure the establishment wanted to conduct elections within 90 days, but added that these could be delayed to take place in February due to delimitation.

When contacted to know if polls in February are possible, another ECP official said the answer is “yes and no”.

Talking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, he said another challenge after delimitation would be synchronisation of electoral rolls with the new increased census blocks — an exercise which may take months to complete.

However, he added, it was possible to deal with the challenge by doing it side by side with the delimitation exercise.

Delimitation schedule

The ECP will complete the delimitation exercise by Dec 14. As the first step, the boundaries of administrative units across the country have been frozen.

Delimitation committees for all the provinces and the federal capital will be formed by Aug 21.

The administrative arrangements for delimitation, including the requisition of maps along with other necessary data, description of districts and tehsils from provinces, obtaining the district census reports, etc, would be completed between Aug 22 and Aug 30. Training will be provided to the delimitation committees from Sept 1 to Sept 4.

District quotas for national and provincial assemblies will be shared with delimitation committees from Sept 5 to Sept 7.

Preliminary delimitation of constituencies will be prepared by the committees from Sept 8 to Oct 7, and published on Oct 9 after which people will present their objections and recommendations to the ECP on the initial delimitation from Oct 10 to Nov 8. The ECP will hear and decide the objections from Nov 10 to Dec 9. The final list of constituencies will be published on Dec 14.

Separately, the electoral body issued a set of directives for “all those in service of Pakistan” to assist it in the process of delimitation under Article 220 of the Constitution.

It directed provincial chief secretaries, chief commissioner, federal government and the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics to provide the ECP with the notification of census changes, census circles and census blocks, maps in respect of census changes along with descriptions, copies of consolidated master maps of urban areas showing census changes/circles/blocks in metropolitan corporations, municipal corporations, municipal committees and town committees, list of revenue units authenticated by the authority with units and latest district maps.

‘Ploy to delay polls’

In a strong reaction, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf rejected the delimitation schedule issued terming it a ploy to delay the polls.

The party announced that it would challenge the decision before the Supreme Court on Friday (today).

PTI spokesperson, in a statement, said the ECP’s schedule of redrawing constituencies was based on malicious intent in a clear deviation from the Constitution.

He pointed out that in the case of a premature dissolution of the National Assembly, the ECP is constitutionally bound to hold elections within stipulated 90 days.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2023

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