Finally, a date

A MEETING held between the Election Commission of Pakistan and President Arif Alvi has yielded a specific date for the next general elections: Feb 8, 2024. Earlier in the day, the ECP had informed the court that it had scheduled the date for Feb 11, but was told to consult the president. The agreement has come as a relief to those who believed that polls would not be held anytime soon. No doubt, it is very welcome news, even if it means that the ECP will once again be breaking its word as the date represents a slight delay from the `end of January` timeline, which the electoral body gave in late September and affirmed last week. It also represents a 95-day violation of the deadline to hold elections according to the Constitution. The court, while hearing the matter, had rubbished the assertion of the law ministry and ECP that the president had no authority to give election dates.

It seems this matter has now attained finality. While dictating the court`s order, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa said that whatever date is decided by the ECP and the president will have to be implemented. `The final date for polls will be announced from the Supreme Court,` he said. This should be the cue for the ECP and all political parties to begin election preparations in earnest. The former has three months to ensure a `free, fair, impartial and inclusive election`. It seems like a tall order, given the prevailing political climate and parties` repeated complaints about being denied a level playing field. The political parties, too, need to regroup, vet their candidates, organise campaigns and start mobilising voters for the big day. Because so little has been done in preparation for the exercise up till now, they have a long and bumpy road ahead of them. The Supreme Court has given them a head start, and they should take advantage of it.

Now that the fog has lifted, the ECP will be under constant scrutiny. It wilfully violated the Constitution on multiple occasions this year, justifying each violation with the excuse that it was necessary in order to hold elections that could pass a high standard of fairness. If, after all these violations, the participating parties are still denied an equal opportunity to present their case to the public, then all of it will have been for nothing. It must, at the very least, demonstrate that it was acting in good faith. There is also talk about giving the delay in elections legal cover under Article 254. However, this should not mean that those who conspired to violate the Constitution are let off without penalty. The consequences must be severe and exemplary for all involved.

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