Uncertainty about elections schedule
Amidst all kinds of rumours, speculations and conspiracy theories doing the rounds for the past few months, the relief regarding the announcement of the proper general elections schedule was to prove to be short lived had the honourable Supreme Court not suspended the order of the Lahore High Court. Verdicts by three High Courts and a resolution passed by the Balochistan Assembly have raised new questions and concerns whether the July 25, 2018 date for the elections can be adhered to. First, the verdicts. The Lahore High Court (LHC) has asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to include all the information, especially related to Article 63, in the candidates’ nomination forms as was the case for the 2013 elections before parliament amended the forms through the Elections Act 2017. Mercifully this order has been suspended by the Supreme Court. The Islamabad High Court (IHC), seized of some 110 petitions challenging the delimitations of constituencies carried out by the ECP, has set aside 14 such delimitations, asking the ECP to carry out the exercise afresh in those constituencies. The Balochistan High Court (BHC) has also set aside the delimitation of eight of Quetta’s nine seats, not to mention the resolution passed by the Balochistan Assembly for postponement of the polls amidst a fracas on the floor of the house between the government and the opposition. Also in the ring is the hat thrown in by outgoing Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Pervez Khattak arguing that the elections for the newly merged FATA with KP be held simultaneously with the general elections, a demand not practicable given that a long process of about a year is required before the process of elections in the tribal districts can be conducted. Khattak’s fear is that the 21 general seats up for grabs in the tribal districts will prove destabilising for whichever government is in power in KP after the July 25 polls. While the ECP met on June 2 to cogitate how to deal with a situation that could potentially spell delay in the election schedule, the Additional Secretary of the ECP, Akhtar Nazir stated that the decisions would be challenged in the Supreme Court (SC) in an effort to stick to the original schedule, which is also a constitutional necessity. Other important office holders, including newly sworn in caretaker Prime Minister and former Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Nasirul Mulk and the current CJP Saqib Nisar, have unequivocally stated that the election schedule will be adhered to come what may. The main political parties, the PML-N, PTI and PPP have all come out in support of the announced election schedule, with the PPP wondering out loud whether the ‘system’ is attempting to delay the elections. To add to the confusion and problems, three provincial caretaker chief ministers are still to be agreed upon between their respective outgoing chief ministers and leaders of the opposition. In KP the failure to agree has landed the issue in a parliamentary committee to decide. In Punjab too it is likely to end up with the ECP while in Balochistan the to and fro of names (and new names) for caretaker chief minister continues.
The charitable view of this mess would be that the ECP has failed to take account of and as far as possible pre-empt all these obstacles to the smooth holding of the elections. The temptation, however, to voice suspicions that powerful forces and vested interests are out to sabotage the elections schedule is difficult to resist. The credibility of these elections is already being questioned by insightful observers in the light of the ‘mass migration’ of so many seasonal sparrows, otherwise flattered by the description ‘electables’, to parties viewed in the public mind as enjoying the blessings and support of the ubiquitous establishment. Be that as it may, a solution to the conundrum is needed post-haste. If petitions against the High Court verdicts are to be moved before the SC, this should be done as quickly as possible. If there are delays in this, or the petitions do not cover all four corners of the problem, it seems a fit case if ever there was one for the CJP to take suo motu notice and settle these issues so that the election schedule is not disturbed. Any other course has the potential to set off a serious political crisis and despoil the fruits of the second peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box that the country is poised on the cusp of.