JUST because the chief election commissioner keeps insisting on it, and the government keeps repeating it, does not make it an incontestable fact: determining when a general election is to be held is arguably not the ECP’s ‘sole prerogative’, whether one goes by the Constitution or even by the updated statute books the watchdog has been citing.
This questionable assertion continues to be repeated ad nauseam, but it does not change the fact that the Elections Act, just like other laws, remains subject and subservient to the Constitution, which is rather clear regarding how long the election watchdog has to hold elections in case any assembly is dissolved before its tenure is up (Article 2242), and the president’s responsibility to appoint a date for a general election when the assembly in question has been dissolved by his hand (Article 483).
The ECP has recently been assuring political parties that it intends to hold general elections in the country by late January or mid-February 2024; once constituencies have been delimited afresh under the census notified by the PDM and its allies shortly before the National Assembly was dissolved. Regrettably, only a handful of political actors appear concerned that this will necessarily entail yet another violation of the Constitution.
It may be recalled that, earlier this year, the ECP had refused to hold elections for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab assemblies within the mandatory 90-day period. It did so in direct defiance of the Constitution as well as the Supreme Court’s orders.
At the time, the ECP had offered to hold the due elections at a later date — Oct 8, to be precise. However, it clearly seems to be in no mood to stick to that timeline now.
It is also worth recalling that, as recently as July, the ECP had ruled out any delay in the general elections, promising it was ready to hold polls within 60 or 90 days, depending on whenever the National Assembly was dissolved.
In a July 20 press conference, addressed by ECP Secretary Omar Hamid Khan and Special Secretary Zafar Iqbal Hussain, the latter had also ruled out the possibility of fresh delimitations, saying that elections would be held under the previous census and delimitation. Within a month, the ECP abruptly changed its stance.
Its volte-face was immediately protested by the PPP, which later revealed that it had been assured that the notification of the census would have no bearing on election dates.
Given these precedents, how can the ECP be trusted? As long as it continues to believe that no law or court order can compel it to do its constitutional duty within stipulated time frames, it may find it more convenient to continue delaying the exercise on one pretext or the other.
Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2023