Delayed polls

Published August 19, 2023

WITH the ECP saying on Thursday that the delimitation process will be wrapped up by mid-December, polls within the constitutional window of 90 days appear to be an impossibility.

This paper has consistently argued that the law of the land must be respected, and polls should not be delayed.

Yet the movers and shakers — both in Islamabad and Rawalpindi — have other ideas; it appears that a deliberate situation of legal and constitutional confusion was created to make timely polls difficult.

The PML-N-led dispensation bears primary responsibility for the delay. The newly notified census and fresh delimitation of constituencies thereafter are being cited as reasons behind the delayed polls. But provisional numbers for the 2023 census were ready in May.

Had the PDM government so desired, it could have discussed the issue with all parties and called a CCI meeting to notify the results several months ago, paving the way for timely polls.

Instead, consensus was reached in the Aug 5 CCI meeting over fresh census data, after the PPP, for example, was ‘magically’ convinced to approve the 2023 headcount.

The appointment of a rather large caretaker cabinet is also cause for concern. A caretaker set-up should be a bare-bones operation tasked with running day-to-day affairs — primarily law and order and keeping the economy on track — and ensuring timely and fair polls.

Therefore, a 24-member cabinet, which includes portfolios for departments such as national heritage and tourism, is unnecessary and fuels rumours that the caretakers are in for the long run.

In this regard, the interim prime minister, during his maiden cabinet meeting on Friday, made a ‘reassuring’ statement that he and his team do not have a “perpetual mandate”. The interim information minister also remarked that the caretakers do not intend to prolong their stay.

Some observers say that the Constitution is vague on delimitations — the reason behind the electoral delay — but clear on the period available to caretakers, therefore the 90-day limit is sacrosanct.

Ideally, the caretakers should go home in 90 days, and a new elected government should then emerge. Realistically though, polls are unlikely before February, as several political leaders have pointed out.

Yet any delays beyond this date will throw up a fresh constitutional crisis, as Senate elections are due in March, and the provincial assemblies, along with the National Assembly, form the electoral college of the Upper House.

Without elected assemblies, there will be no Senate polls. Ignoring constitutional imperatives — it has already been done in the case of the KP and Punjab caretaker administrations — is abhorrent, but if delays are inevitable, they must be kept to a minimum, and the ECP should clear the air by announcing a definitive date for general elections.

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2023

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