Why elections are taking place in 2024 instead of last year

Originally scheduled for November 2023, the general elections are almost three months late due to many reasons.
Published January 26, 2024

Amid lingering doubts and reservations, the eagerly awaited and long overdue general elections will be held on February 8.

On August 12, 2018, when the newly elected MNAs of the 15th National Assembly (NA) were sworn in, the country expected the next polls to ideally take place somewhere around October 12, 2023 — upon the expiry of its constitutionally mandated five-year period as well as the maximum of 60 days allowed for the caretaker set-up to conduct the polls in.

However, former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, tactfully and prematurely, dissolved his government on Aug 9, 2023 — three days before it was to complete its full term — which meant that the caretaker set-up was now allowed a maximum of 90 days instead of 60 to hold the polls.

Even then, the general elections should have been held somewhere around November 12, but the actual date announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) instead is Feb 8 — almost three months later.

So why are the elections taking place at the start of 2024 when they should have been held at the end of 2023? Let’s trace the reasons for this delay:

Dissolution of Punjab, KP assemblies

On December 17, 2022, roughly eight months after being ousted from the prime minister’s office by the Pakistan Democratic Movement-led (PDM) no-confidence motion, then-PTI chairman Imran Khan announced that his party’s governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would dissolve their assemblies to pave the way for fresh elections.

The announcement was met with great objection as well as scepticism from PML-N and PPP leaders — the main forces of the then-ruling PDM government. Later, the PML-N announced that it was ready to contest elections if the PTI went through with its decision to dissolve the two assemblies.

Experts believed that by dissolving his provincial assemblies, Imran wanted to create political pressure but the NA was under no legal obligation to do the same.

Imran, meanwhile, expressed concerns that the government may not hold general elections even in October 2023 — a prediction that did eventually come true. His party obliged to his command and by January, both the assemblies stood dissolved and caretaker set-ups took over.

After a protracted legal tussle over who would make the announcement and when elections could be held, President Dr Arif Alvi, in consultation with the ECP, chose April 30 for re-elections in Punjab.

However, in a meeting with Chief Election Commis­sioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja, an Inter-Services Inte­lli­gence (ISI) representative sought the postponement of polls for three to four months due to a fresh wave of militancy in both the provinces. During the meeting, the Intelligence Bureau (IB)’s joint director for Punjab also talked about the presence of armed militants from Afghanistan in Punjab.

Despite initially entertaining the idea and accepting the date set by the president, the ECP abruptly postponed the Punjab elections by almost six months till October 8 citing a “massive shortfall in police personnel” and the non-provision of army personnel as a static force.

“The commission is unable to make alternate arrangements to ensure the security of the election material, polling staff, voters and the candidates,” the ECP order read.

It added that the finance ministry had also shown an “inability to release funds due to financial crunch and unprecedented economic crisis in the country”.

Irked by the postponement, PTI’s Imran said he had not dissolved the two provincial assemblies for “a bunch of fascists to impose a reign of terror, violating the constitution and rule of law”.

After Punjab, the ECP also notified Oct 8 as the date for provincial elections for the KP Assembly as well, giving “unavailability of funds and armed forces required for security” as the reason for doing so.

Lawyer Syed Sheheryar Raza Zaidi, in his column for Dawn, noted that a combined reading of the Constitution and the Election Act made it clear that the Constitution did not allow for a delay in polls beyond 90 days, irrespective of the pretext.

Yet, the caretaker set-ups in Punjab and KP were examples of how the Constitution can conveniently be ignored with impunity, he noted.

The matter landed in the Supreme Court (SC), which ruled in March that elections in KP and Punjab should be held within 90 days. However, the ECP and the outgoing ruling coalition in the Centre refused to comply with the court’s orders, citing the need for fresh delimitation of constituencies based on the census results.

The SC faced legal and practical difficulties in enforcing its orders, while also facing resistance and non-cooperation from the executive, the ECP, and the military, who challenged its jurisdiction and authority. The orders were violated without any penalties, undermining the SC’s credibility and independence.

Fresh delimitation

After the events of May 9 — when violent events broke out in the country following Imran’s arrest — overshadowed the apex court’s inability to have its orders obeyed, and after the NA was dissolved in August, albeit slightly prematurely, all eyes were back on the ECP, which was expected to finally give the date for general elections.

But days before the NA’s dissolution, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) “unanimously” approved the results of the 2023 digital census, thus sowing the seeds of further delay.

Citing the census results, the electoral watchdog decided to complete the process of fresh delimitation — the delineation of electoral constituencies based on census data — of both national and provincial assembly constituencies by Dec 14, over a month beyond the constitutionally mandated deadline for conducting general elections.

This was despite Article 224 of the Constitution binding the watchdog to conduct general elections within three months of the National Assembly’s dissolution.

The development drew a strong reaction from the PTI, which rejected the delimitation schedule, terming it a “ploy to delay the polls”.

The outgoing PDM-led ruling coalition was also accused of harbouring intentions to prolong the election timeline beyond the mandated 90 days. And while some reservations were expressed within the PPP, there appeared to be a broader push to delay elections.

For instance, the delay in convening the the CCI meeting to approve census results raised eyebrows, hinting at a calculated effort to slow down the electoral process.

On September 21, the ECP announced that after deliberating on delimitations, it was decided that the elections would be held in the last week of January 2024.

Despite the loose January date, the opposition leader in the previous NA, Raja Riaz, claimed in an interview that the “elders” had decided that elections would be held in February 2024.

Date ‘set in stone’

After months of dilly-dallying on the issue of polls, the ECP finally agreed in November 2023 to hold general elections on Feb 8 this year.

The announcement by the ECP came after a meeting between Presi­dent Arif Alvi and CEC Raja, who visited the presidency with the ECP members, on the orders of the apex court, which had put its foot down and directed the electoral watchdog to confer with the president on the poll date.

“God willing, elections will be held on Feb 8,” Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa had stated a day later.

Acting in compliance with the SC’s order, the ECP issued the election schedule for the upcoming polls on Dec 15.

Uncertainty continues

Veteran politician Afrasiab Khattak, during a session at the Afkar-e-Taza ThinkFest, recently said there still was uncertainty about the upcoming elections and one should “see the elephant in the room”.

Senior journalist Hamid Mir agreed with Khattak, saying the powerful circles wanted to delay the election on the “lame excuse of the law and order situation”.

However, the ECP has reiterated that general elections cannot be put off “at this stage”.

The interim government has also expressed the same, with caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi saying: “The ECP is committed to holding polls on Thursday, Feb 8 and so are the [caretaker] federal and provincial governments”.

However, the desire to have the polls delayed still resurfaced on January 5 — this time during a thinly-attended Senate session which adopted a resolution, seeking the postponement of the general elections over security and inclement weather concerns.

Two more resolutions — by independent senators Hidayatullah and Hilalur Rahman — expressing the same desire have since been submitted to the Senate Secretariat, although they were countered by a separate resolution that emphasised the need to adhere to “constitutional requirements” and to ensure the timely conduct of the polls.

Despite the hoopla in the upper house of Parliament, preparations for the elections have picked up steam in the country after a sluggish start. Candidates have started campaigning and political parties are working overtime to get citizens to vote for them on February 8.