Cost of election delay

Published December 11, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN

SPECULATION persists over whether general elections might be postponed. This prompted the Election Commission of Pakistan to issue a ‘clarification’ rejecting reports about a delay in elections as “completely baseless and misleading”.

It said the electoral process is on track and the polls will be held as announced on Feb 8, 2024. The ECP is also expected to issue the election schedule this week. Yet public doubts continue. In a statement last week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan referred to an “air of uncertainty” in the country created by “persistent rumours of potential delays”.

Some political parties have accused their rivals of seeking to delay elections. One of them even called for a delay, citing the winter weather, ignoring the fact that elections in the past have been held in February.

Speculation also intensified when reports emerged that ECP had not received funds the government had allocated to conduct the election and that it summoned the finance secretary for an explanation in this regard. The money was subsequently released.

Remarks by Ghulam Ali, governor of KP, also added grist to the mill of those speculating about a postponement. The governor publicly voiced concerns about the security situation, saying this made it difficult to carry out political activities in parts of KP and Balochistan. True that a surge in terrorist attacks this year, especially by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, has led to a deterioration in the security situation in these two provinces. But that is not sufficient reason to postpone the polls. Both past experience and present realities dictate that the election should go ahead as scheduled.

In two previous elections, in 2008 and 2013, the security situation was much worse with the fallout from the raging war in Afghanistan posing an imposing challenge at the time. In fact, militant insurgency was at its peak in 2008 with two major terror attacks in KP just ahead of the election. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination in December 2007 made the situation even more fraught.

It led to an outbreak of protests with several incidents of destruction of private and public property including ECP offices in interior Sindh. The election was postponed by little over a month — from Jan 8 to Feb 18. In 2013, the election was preceded by terrorist bombings by the TTP especially targeting the Awami National Party and involving an attack on a JUI-F rally in KP. But the election went ahead as scheduled.

People want an elected government that can address the country’s challenges and fix the economy.

In any case if some parts of KP are vulnerable to terrorist violence, elections in ‘sensitive’ constituencies can be held later — as by-elections. The number would be very small and will not affect the overall outcome. The country’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh, which account for over 72 million and 26m voters respectively (almost 100m out of a total electorate of 127m) face no security challenge. Nor does much of KP and Balochistan.

Therefore, security cannot be invoked as justification for any poll delay. To do so on the basis of a handful of constituencies will be a pretext or alibi designed to serve other purposes and not a credible ground for delay.

Any delay would have constitutional, political and economic implications. There are no constitutional grounds on which elections can be delayed. To postpone elections now would be an outright constitutional transgression. Politically, such a move could set the stage for turmoil in the country, deepen polarisation and become a source of political instability.

All three major political parties, which are now in electioneering mode, would oppose the delay and also mount a legal challenge plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. Half of the Senate is up for election in March. If elections are not held before then, it will leave the country with a truncated Upper House, which is elected by national and provincial assembly members. That too would be a recipe for constitutional chaos.

The economic cost to the country would also be high as uncertainty would gravely jeopardise the prospects for economic stability. The economy is still on life support, with the country having narrowly averted a debt default only months ago by securing a Stand-by Arrangement (SBA) with the IMF. The bailout is only a temporary reprieve that momentarily restored some confidence.

The economy is still mired in a low-growth path where investment remains dampened, economic activity is subdued, and most longer-term decisions await elections and installation of a legitimate government. The fiscal situation has undoubtedly stabilised but the foreign exchange reserve position remains fragile with debt service payments eroding reserves over time.

The SBA ends in March. Given Pakistan’s external financing requirement of over $21 billion to meet its foreign debt obligations and finance the current account deficit in the next fiscal year, it would need to negotiate a larger, longer-term programme with the Fund (apart from having to secure more rollovers of loans from China). This would enable Pakistan to access financing from other multilateral development banks to credibly meet the country’s gross financing needs.

Only an elected government with a fresh mandate and authority to implement a new IMF programme can do this. This is also the expectation if not an implicit condition set by the IMF. Without a new Fund programme Pakistan would exhaust its foreign exchange reserves in June. Thus, postponing the election would risk economic chaos and leave the country teetering again on the brink of default.

Uncertainty will only raise the cost to the economy. It will continue to vitiate the investment climate, produce instability in the capital market and encourage capital flight. Already a caretaker arrangement that has exceeded the 90-day constitutionally mandated period in office has had to leave major economic decisions pending with obvious consequences for the country.

Opinion surveys and anecdotal evidence show that people want elections as soon as possible so that a legitimate, elected government is in place to get on with the job of governance and start to purposefully address the country’s many challenges, especially fixing the economy to alleviate the public’s worsening economic plight.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2023

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