President Arif Alvi urged the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Wednesday to “immediately announce” the dates for elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab and to end “dangerous speculative propaganda” on both the provincial assembly and general elections.
The fate of the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appears to be in jeopardy, according to media reports, rumours in the capital, and statements by PML-N leaders a day earlier. For example, PML-N leader Khawaja Saad Rafique recently stated that general elections should be held across the country at the same time and that elections for provincial assemblies and the National Assembly cannot be held separately.
Pakistan’s precarious financial situation is the reason. The Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies were both dissolved last month, and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) suggested that elections be held in Punjab between April 9 and April 13, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between April 15 and April 17.
Even before the assemblies were dissolved, it was assumed that the PDM government would be reluctant to hold provincial elections within the constitutionally mandated 90-day period following the dissolution. To add to the scepticism, the governors of both provinces have reportedly refused to give the ECP a date for elections.
Some PDM leaders are citing Article 254 to justify the delay: “When any act or thing is required by the constitution to be done within a particular period and it is not done within that period, the doing of the act or thing shall not be invalid or otherwise ineffective solely because it was not done within that period.” However, several constitutional and legal experts believe that this does not preclude elections from being postponed. In that case, the 90-day provision would be rendered null and void.
Given the economic situation, the PDM government may wish to postpone elections in these two provinces, but as constitutional experts have pointed out, this is no excuse. Elections, regardless of the politics surrounding them, should be held on time. Any delay will increase political uncertainty and cast doubt on the center’s democratic credentials.
Perhaps the APC convened by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will be able to resolve this issue if all political parties attend and forge a consensus not only on terrorism but also on the economy and election reforms. Taking unilateral action to postpone elections is a bad idea. How will their rhetoric about democracy ever resonate with their constituents if parties out of power wax eloquently about constitutionalism but shun these principles when in power? Whether it’s the PTI invoking Article 5 when a vote of no-confidence should have been held or the PDM government attempting to postpone elections, do our political parties only see the constitution as a useful weapon when they’re out of power—or favour?
The fate of some opposition politicians adds to the uncertainty, with rumours of ‘important arrests’ circulating for some time now. The arrest of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s close aide and Punjab Assembly Secretary Muhammad Khan Bhatti from Sindh is instructive in this regard.
Now, the only way to resolve these issues is for all political parties to finally learn to engage with one another, express their reservations, formulate policies, and reach an agreement on how to proceed without political victimisation or abusive sloganeering. If the political class continues to respond in this tit-for-tat manner, they will only be harming their own interests and willingly ceding power to power structures outside the political realm. They can’t possibly want that, can they?