10 questions you may have now that elections are over

From the deadline to form new govt to caretakers' fate and PTI-backed independents' options — this piece answers all the queries arising in the wake of Feb 8.
Published February 15, 2024

After months of uncertainty and crippling anxiety, Pakistan finally voted in the 12th general elections of the country’s history on Feb 8 to elect a new government.

But the polling day was marred by a nearly 24-hour outage of cellular services — a decision the caretakers blamed on the security situation. The shutdown of mobile phone networks meant most people across the country were deprived of the internet, which further raised concerns about the electoral process — not just locally but also internationally.

While the poll day went by amid rigging allegations and sporadic acts of violence, what followed was a long waiting game as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) took its sweet time to announce the results.

When they were finally released, the results shocked all the quarters. PTI-backed independents, against all odds, managed to claim a lion’s share in the polls while the other two major parties had no choice but to accept the will of the people.

The results, both adored and abhorred, have left Pakistan on a seesaw.

Here, Dawn.com answers 10 questions that you, the real stakeholders, may have now that the elections are over.

What is the deadline to form a government? Can it be extended?

According to Section 91(2) of the Constitution, the president must convene the National Assembly’s session after the official announcement of election results or issuance of its notification within 21 days.

“The National Assembly shall meet on the twenty-first day following the day on which a general election to the assembly is held, unless sooner summoned by the president,” the section says.

Based on the fact that the elections were held on Feb 8, caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi recently said that the last date for convening the NA session is February 29 — exactly 21 days after Feb 8 — but it can be summoned on any day before it.

Meanwhile, Section 91(3) of the Constitution says: “After the election of the speaker and the deputy speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be the Prime Minister.

As per Section 91(4), the prime minister “shall be elected by the votes of the majority of the total membership of the National Assembly, provided that, if no member secures such majority in the first poll, a second poll shall be held between the members who secure the two highest numbers of votes in the first poll and the member who secures a majority of votes of the members present and voting shall be declared to have been elected as prime minister, [and] provided further that, if the number of votes secured by two or more members securing the highest number of votes is equal, further poll shall be held between them until one of them secures a majority of votes of the members present and voting.”

Advocate Usama Khawar says the deadline to summon the National Assembly session cannot be extended. However, it may be possible that the session continues for a number of days until a prime minister is elected.

How long can a caretaker govt stay in power after polls?

Khawar told Dawn.com that a caretaker government can remain in power until the newly elected prime minister assumes office, which typically occurs during the first session of the National Assembly following the general elections.

As mentioned above, the Constitution requires the National Assembly to convene on the 21st day after elections unless the president summons the session earlier.

“This means that caretakers can hold office until at least that date, which, in this case, would be March 1,” Khawar said.

However, if the president calls the session earlier and the prime minister is elected and assumes office sooner, the tenure of the caretaker government would end accordingly.

If a result is under litigation, what becomes of that constituency?

The ECP is bound to hear the complaints of candidates who challenge the election results. For example, at the moment, two benches of the electoral watchdog comprising five members are currently hearing reservations.

These complaints are then transferred to election tribunals, notified by high courts, where hearings are conducted. However, tribunals are bound to announce their verdict within 120 days after the elections are held. Until the final results are announced, the residents of that constituency can approach the ECP for any issues or concerns.

Further, let’s suppose that the election tribunal upholds the victory of a candidate, in that scenario, the opponent can approach the high court and results can be withdrawn if they are able to convince the court.

But, even if an election result in a constituency is under litigation, the constituency remains represented in the assemblies.

What happens if a person wins in multiple constituencies?

They will simply have to choose one constituency and let go of the others. Once the individual chooses which seat to retain, by resigning from the others, a by-election is typically held in the vacated constituencies to fill the vacant seats.

According to the Constitution, the person must resign from all but one seat within 30 days after the declaration of the result for the last such seat. Failure to do so will result in all the seats becoming vacant, except for the last one won or, if elected on the same day, the seat for which their nomination was filed last.

For example, during the 2024 elections, PML-N chief organiser Maryam Nawaz won a National Assembly seat (NA-119) as well as a provincial seat (PP-159). However, Maryam would now be foregoing the NA seat after being nominated for the slot of the Punjab chief minister.

A similar case also persists with PTI’s Ali Amin Gandapur, who won the general election in one National Assembly constituency (NA-44) as well as a provincial assembly constituency (PK-113) but can only keep one of the two.

After his nomination for the slot of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s chief minister, it is almost certain that he would vacate the NA seat.

In such an instance, when a seat is forgone, a new representative is elected from the constituency during by-elections.

What happens if a person forfeits a seat they have won?

If a person withdraws from a seat they have won, a by-election to fill the seat shall be held within 60 days from the occurrence of the vacancy.

The same would imply in the recent cases of Jamaat-i-Islami leader Hafiz Naeemur Rehman and Grand Democratic Alliance chief Pir Pagara, who forfeited their Sindh Assembly seats over alleged rigging.

Naeem had won the PS-129 seat from Karachi Central VIII while GDA candidates had prevailed from Khairpur’s PS-31 and Sanghar’s PS-40 constituencies.

What if two major political parties win the same amount of votes and acquire the same number of independents?

Advocate Khawar says that in such a case a run-off election will be conducted until one candidate for prime minister secures a majority of votes.

“If no candidate manages to secure a majority even after the run-offs, the president can dissolve the Assembly as a last resort,” he adds.

Does Article 63 (disqualification) apply to PTI-backed candidates deserting the party?

Article 63 of the Constitution outlines the process to disqualify a lawmaker who votes against the party line in the assembly during the election of the prime minister or chief minister, vote of confidence or no-confidence and budget.

Khawar calls this a “contentious legal question”, highlighting that there are strong legal and constitutional arguments on both sides.

“In my opinion, if the PTI had a legally recognised party head who officially nominated the party’s candidates for the elections, then disqualifications under Article 63A would have applied.

“But since there was no party head to nominate PTI candidates after the ECP’s decision and subsequent Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ECP’s denial of an electoral symbol to PTI, Article 63A does not apply to PTI-backed independents,” the lawyer told Dawn.com.

However, he continued, political morality requires that those candidates who were PTI-backed and solicited votes in the name of the party should stick with the party.

Can the PTI-backed independents form federal government? What are the options they have?

In theory, PTI-backed independents can form a government if they have a majority in the legislature. But as things stand, they do not have a majority in the National Assembly, although they are in a comfortable position to lead the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

Technically, Khawar explains, independents can either maintain their distinct group or become part of any other party that has representation in the National Assembly. Independent returned candidates can join political parties within three days of the publication in the official gazette of the names of the returned candidates.

As per the ECP’s tally, the total number of general seats won by the six parties which announced their plans last night to form a coalition led by Shehbaz Sharif — PML-N, PPP, MQM-P, PML-Q, IPP and BAP — comes to 152.

This clearly shows that these parties will easily achieve the minimum required number of 169 to form the government at the Centre after the addition of 60 women and 10 minority seats to their tally. However, it is yet to be seen if these parties will be able to get to the next magic number of 224, which is required to obtain the elusive two-thirds majority in a 336-member National Assembly.

Since 101 independents, including 92 PTI-backed independents, have emerged victorious in the Feb 8 elections, the allocation of reserved seats depends upon the decision taken by these independents to either join a party or remain independent.

If the PTI-backed candidates decide to join the Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM), as announced by the party, it will get a share in the women and minorities seats as well.

However, since the MWM has only won a seat only from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI would only be entitled to a share in the 10 reserved seats allocated to women from that province.

According to Article 51(3) of the Constitution, there are 32 women reserved seats from Punjab, 14 from Sindh and four from Balochistan. These women seats will be distributed among the parties on the basis of general seats won by these parties in each province.

The 10 minority seats, however, will be distributed among the parties on the basis of total general seats won by the parties all over the country, since the whole country is considered to be one constituency for minorities.

Can a member of a political party vote for an opposing party’s candidate for PM?

This is a little complicated.

Advocate Khawar explains that a member of a political party can vote for an opposing party’s candidate for PM if the head of their parliamentary party requires them to do so.

“However, if a member of a parliamentary party votes against the direction of their party, not only will their vote not be counted, but they will also be penalised and de-seated from the assembly,” he added.

Is the vote for prime minister cast through secret or open ballot?

The vote for the election of the prime minister is cast through an open ballot.

Khawar explains that the purpose of the open ballot was to determine the loyalty of a member and is, therefore, connected to Article 63 of the Constitution.

Thus, the voting to elect the prime minister is public for all to see.