These elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the two provincial assemblies and the formal vacation of the NA seats, as mandated by Article 224 of the Constitution
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced on Friday that by-elections for 33 National Assembly (NA) seats would be held on March 16. The seats were vacated after NA Speaker Raja Pervez Ashraf moved quickly to accept the resignations of PTI lawmakers and AML chief Sheikh Rashid, which had been pending since April 2022, in an apparent attempt to thwart the opposition’s alleged plan to bring a confidence motion against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
According to the notification, the returning officers (RO) would issue a public notice in this regard on February 3. From February 6 to 8, candidates can submit their nomination papers to the RO. A few days ago, the ECP proposed holding elections for the legislatures of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between April 9 and 17.
These developments demonstrate that the wheels are in motion. The ECP has begun its preparations to hold elections for the assemblies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, as well as 33 seats in the National Assembly from 93 recently vacated NA seats. These elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the two provincial assemblies and the formal vacation of the NA seats, as mandated by Article 224 of the Constitution.
Those dates indicate that the ECP wants the elections to take place near the end of the 90-day window, in the second half of Ramazan. The dates for the NA by-elections have not yet been set.
While there is no legal prohibition on holding elections for some assemblies early and others later, it has never been done. The situation’s novelty has given rise to some intriguing speculation and concerns. More than two-thirds of the seats usually contested in a general election are represented by the seats for which the ECP must organise elections in the next three months.
Because the funds previously budgeted for the general election are no longer sufficient, the watchdog has been forced to seek a supplementary grant to fund this massive exercise. While elections for provincial assemblies will return lawmakers who can serve for a maximum of five years, elections for seats in the National Assembly will need to be held again once the current assembly is disbanded.
There are also concerns about whether the electoral body will be able to protect election integrity if elections are held under partisan governments. The Daska debacle comes to mind. The ECP may have successfully avoided being hijacked by the current government, but it should be noted that this was a small-scale by-election. While it is the ECP’s responsibility to deliver whether the elections are held under an elected government or a caretaker government, the job will be difficult given the political climate and the stakes.
The decision to hold elections during the month of fasting must also be reconsidered, as both preparations and turnout are likely to suffer as a result of the overall slowdown in activity during the period. It appears that holding two large-scale elections rather than one will require significantly more time, effort, and money, and controversies will continue to plague them. Is the public good truly better served this way? At this point, there is only one question that needs to be asked.