Election 2023, anyone? – 20 Feb 2023

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has excused itself from holding consultations with President Arif Alvi on elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the time being, saying that the matter is “sub judice at various judicial fora”, among other reasons. This comes after President Alvi had summoned Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja for an urgent meeting today (February 20) to hold a consultation of the dates of the polls. The letter by the ECP states that the electoral body is well aware of its constitutional and legal obligations. The bone of contention are the dates of the polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which have still not been announced even though the ECP had approached the governors of both the provinces for deciding a date.

Legal experts are largely of the opinion that the polls in Punjab and KP should not – in fact, constitutionally speaking, cannot – be delayed. There would have to be the most exceptional of circumstances to opt for a delay in elections meant to be exercised within a certain timeframe. As constitutional experts argue, we are not in any such exceptional situation at the moment and snatching away the right of the people to choose their representatives, just on the whims or fears of the ruling elite, will only further erode people’s trust in the system. The constitution does not say that general elections have to be held on the same day, so the delay comes across as even more confusing. It also makes the PML-N – the party at the forefront of the current government – look like it’s literally running away from elections. That is not good optics for a party in power. There has also been some talk about how if the PTI and PDM were to reach a consensus – a rare occurrence if at all – on delaying the Punjab and KP elections and holding the general elections on the same day, they would have to make a constitutional amendment in this regard. With all these complications, if the government’s strategy is to delay the elections without any legal or constitutional basis, it is surely based on rather weak wicket.

The Lahore High Court had asked the ECP to announce the Punjab elections date. The ECP asked the governors. If the governors still don’t announce the date of the polls, the issue will be brought to the courts again. What does it say about the political stakeholders of the country when everything – from price hikes to governor appointments to elections – are battled out in the courts? Pakistan has seen enough political chaos in the last one year; delaying the polls in Punjab and KP will lead to further political uncertainty and chaos. This comes with a cost. We are already witnessing a polarized society on all fronts. The PTI’s strategy – first dissolving its two assemblies and now launching a ‘Jail Bharo’ movement – is signaling towards more political chaos and pressure. The government may not succumb to it but that does not mean that it ignore what others are seeing writ large on the political walls: the PTI is setting the daily news agenda while the government flails about trying to catch up. Do we need this when the economic boat is nursing a large gaping hole?

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