Saturday, October 21, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Oct 21, 2017

After the census The Census 2017 came nine years later than the scheduled date of 2008. The decennial exercise was previously carried out in 1998. The preliminary results of Census 2017 reveal the depth and extent of the population and demographic changes in the 19 years gap between the two censuses. Not only has the population increased from 135 million in 1998 to 208 million in 2017, the dynamic of urbanisation and rural-urban migration has made huge dents in the profile of our demographics. What should follow a census in the normal course is the fresh delimitation of constituencies in the light of the growth and changes in the populace. What should follow then is the allocation, or reallocation, of seats to the provinces according to their recorded populations. The preliminary results of Census 2017, for example, show that Punjab, the most populous province, has seen its share in the overall population of the country decrease. This could translate into Punjab losing anything up to seven seats at the federal level. To carry out the exercise of delimitation and allocation of seats by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would require at least six months. If the expiry date of this parliament is taken into account, that translates into elections in August 2018. To have everything prepared and ready to go therefore, the ECP would have had to complete its homework and tasks by April 2018. Given that the ECP has yet to receive the final results of Census 2018, this seems a difficult, if not well nigh impossible task. While the ECP wrestles with this conundrum, the virtual inevitability of relying on Census 1998 as the basis for conducting General Elections 2018 looms large. This, if adhered to, could open up a Pandora’s box of issues. As it is, discordant voices are being heard from the provinces challenging even the preliminary results and analyses of Census 2017. Imagine then an election held on the basis of Census 1998 and the potential controversies and skewed distortions in representation that would produce compared to the actual demographics on the ground. No surprise then that the federal government is asking the provinces to accept an election in 2018 based on the preliminary results of Census 2017. However, along with their complaints and reservations regarding what has emerged in the public space vis-à-vis the preliminary results of Census 2017, the provinces have with almost one voice demanded that these preliminary results and the analyses carried out on them be provided so that they can scrutinise and analyse these figures themselves. In the absence of this information, the delimitation of constituencies, allocation of seats, preparation of electoral rolls could all end up in controversy, conflict and a resultant blame game, i.e. a real mess long before the first ballot is cast in 2018. The general elections 2018 exercise could fall between the two stools of the Census 1998 (outdated and not reflecting ground demographic realities today) and Census 2017 (preliminary results only, and those too contested by the provinces, who have much at stake in the count of populations since not only seat allocation but resources distribution too depends on it). In this to and fro between the Centre and the provinces and amongst the provinces, the door seems alarmingly ajar for controversies and allegations that may erode the credibility and acceptance of the results of Election 2018. This conundrum does not seem to be heading for resolution. The best course under the obtaining circumstances may be for the issue to be taken to the Council of Common Interests (CCI). There, although the normal procedure is decisions by majority, this complex and critical issue should be decided by a unanimous vote so that all potential controversies and allegations are laid to rest, thereby ensuring the credibility and acceptability of the 2018 election results. Anything short of that may lead to new political crises and the whole democratic system being destabilised.

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