ISLAMABAD: With criticism growing over the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) failure to announce a specific date for general elections, a senior ECP official told Dawn on Friday that it was “not technically possible” to do so.

The official, who asked not to be named, argued that the official announcement of an election date will kick-start a formal process that must follow specific timelines in the lead-up to the election.

Elaborating on this justification, the official said that under Section 57 of the Elections Act, the announcement of a polling date should be followed by issuing an election schedule, which sets the entire electoral cycle in motion.

This ‘cycle’ involves the filing of nomination papers, their scrutiny, and decisions and appeals on their acceptance or rejection. Each step has to be completed under a set timeline.

Separately, PATTAN and Coalition38 — a body of more than 150 civil society organisations and labour unions — issued a joint statement regretting that the ECP had further deepened the prevailing uncertainty by giving an extremely vague statement about the next general elections.

They said the ECP’s statement was violative of Article 48(5a) of the Constitution, which binds the president to announce a date for general elections within 90 days of the dissolution of an assembly.

They also regretted “with deep anguish” that the ECP had eroded its credibility and the public’s trust by taking u-turns and violating the orders of the superior courts.

The statement noted that the ECP had previously refused to hold general elections for the Punjab and KP assemblies on May 14 and had also cancelled local government elections for the Islamabad Capital Territory when polling was to take place in three days. The ECP had thereby violated its own goals set under the Fourth Strategic Plan and Sections 94 and 103 of the Elections Act, 2017, their statement read.

‘Flawed census’

“We also note with deep concern that the ECP, instead of holding elections within 90 days of the dissolution of National Assembly, began delimitation of constituencies which was not only based on a flawed and highly politicised population census but [was] also not mandatory under the Constitution,” the statement issued by the civil society coalition said.

The statement referred to a recent survey conducted in 522 locations in 67 districts, in which as many as 17 per cent of the respondents had said census enumerators did not enter their data in electronic tablets, which had been needed for geo-tagging purposes, while 10 per cent said enumerators had not visited them at all.

“These are no doubt very serious omissions,” the statement said. The organisations also questioned why it took four months to make the final census results public when the preliminary results had been announced in May.

The statement also questioned “massive changes” made to the preliminary results between the months of May and August. Between the two months, the share of Punjab’s population changed by almost three percentage points from 49pc to 52pc in the overall count, which seems to have been done to equalise its share with 2017’s census results, the statement said.

Similar adjustments were made for other provinces, too, the organisations said. “These unexplained fluctuations naturally cause suspicion about the health of the exercise,” the statement added.

Separately, the ECP official interviewed by Dawn defended the ECP’s decision to go for fresh delimitation before elections, insisting that it was taken “after thoroughly examining the law and the Constitution, as well as relevant judgments of the superior judiciary.”

Ruling out the possibility of the delimitation exercise being abandoned midway, he pointed out that elections before November 7 are no longer possible even if the exercise is stopped and a polling schedule is issued forthwith.

The official was, however, more circumspect while answering a question on the possibility of an intervention by the superior judiciary. He said the Commission would be ready to hold elections based on the previous delimitation if the Supreme Court so ordered.

He also assured that all possible steps would be taken to ensure that elections were conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner and that a level playing field was provided to all candidates.

Appeal to SC

PATTAN and Coalition38’s joint statement alleged that most of the delays in the census exercise appear to have been made in order to delay the general elections. The statement demanded that the ECP not use the population census 2023’s flawed results for delimitation purposes and it uses the time instead to ensure that elections are held in November.

“We appeal to the Supreme Court to order the ECP to hold elections in accordance with Article 48(5a),” the statement said. “We also demand that the ECP take confidence-building measures so that elections take place in a conducive environment.

“Under Article 218, it is the responsibility of the ECP to hold free, fair, honest, just, and independent elections. For that, every player must have a level playing field and, to achi­eve that, all political prisoners must be free before election processes begin,” the statement concluded.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2023

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