Pakistan Reader# 561, 2 March 2023
D. Suba Chandran
Yesterday (01 March 2023, Wednesday), the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to conduct elections within 90 days and announce the poll dates in consultation with President (for Punjab) and the KP Governor (for KP). Will this verdict put an end to the political confusion over the dates for elections, or will it complicate matters further?
A section within Pakistan, in the first place, has been questioning the suo motu process and the judicial process. Not only the people but even the court is also divided on this question. Two of the five judges, who gave the verdict yesterday did not agree with the others; according to them, as quoted by Dawn, the suo motu was initiated with “undue haste” and was “unjustified.” The verdict also looks into the role played (or not played) by the Governors of Punjab, KP, and the President of Pakistan. This note will look into the above two issues separately but focus on what is next for Pakistan.
The following questions are important. Is the verdict clear? Is the Election Commission of Pakistan ready to organize in April? What next for the ruling and opposition parties?
Does the verdict provide clarity? Or has it made the situation worse?
The primary position of Imran Khan, his party, and the President of Pakistan (who unilaterally announced the date for the election) is on holding elections within 90 days. Yesterday’s verdict by the Supreme Court asks the Election Commission to propose the election date for the two provinces (Punjab and KP) according to the 90 days deadline set by the constitution; however, the verdict also says the Election Commission, in case of any specific problems, it can deviate from the deadline with “barest minimum.” According to a Dawn news report, the above “leeway was given since the court was ‘informed that on account of delay in the emergence of the poll dates, it may not be possible’ to meet the deadline.”
As a result, the verdict asks the Election Commission to adhere to the 90 days deadline but also gives the latter to play around with the barest minimum, without quantifying what that could be.
The Court also holds different opinions on the role of the President and Governor to decide the dates of election for Punjab. It has asked the Election Commission to consult the President to finalize the dates for elections in Punjab, and to consult the Governor of KP for elections in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Dawn, in its editorial (2 March 2023) comments on the verdict: “While clarity on the question of whose responsibility it is to announce election dates had been needed after President Arif Alvi made his unilateral announcement, it appears in retrospect that the Supreme Court could perhaps have done without involving itself in this case.” The News, in its editorial, said: “The apex court verdict has ended up making matters seem even more confusing.”
Can the ECP organize the elections within 90 days? On 9 April 2023?
Second, is the Election Commission in a position to conduct elections for the two provinces in early April, if it has to adhere to the 90 days deadline (since the assemblies were dissolved)? The Election Commission is expected to set the dates for the elections today (2 March 2023, Thursday) and inform the President (and the Governor of KP) accordingly.
According to the court verdict, as reported by Dawn, “the Election Commission is therefore directed to use its utmost efforts to immediately propose, keeping in mind [sections] 57 and 58 of the Election Act 2017, a date to the president that is compliant with the aforesaid deadline. If such a course is not available, then the ECP shall in like manner propose a date for the holding of the poll that deviates to the barest minimum from the aforesaid deadline. After consultation with the ECP, the president shall announce a date for the holding of the general election to the Punjab Assembly.”
The Election Commission is less likely to organize the elections during the first half of April. It will have to adhere to a schedule and should have a reasonable deadline to adhere to the same. Calling for elections, dates for nomination, the time required to finalize the nomination forms, issuing the final list, having an election calendar, and organizing the election officials – all the above would require time. Given the polarised political situation in Pakistan, the above process and schedule will be a herculean task for any election commission, however well-meaning, well-funded, and well-organized.
So, what next for the ruling, opposition, and provincial parties?
The elections are to be organized in Punjab and KP. This means the PML-N, PTI and a few other provincial parties from the two provinces will have to be more worried about the schedule than the others. The PPP would want to contest in Punjab (especially in southern Punjab) and in KP. For the PPP, whatever it gets in Punjab and KP should be additional. The PML-N would also want to contest in the KP; however, for the PML-N, the main battleground will be Punjab.
Imran Khan should feel confident about PTI’s performance in KP; his primary focus however will be Punjab. The success of his future narrative will depend on his performance in Punjab. And this should be the biggest worry for the PML-N. If the Sharifs want to stop Imran Khan at the national level, they must to do it in Punjab.
The elections should also decide the fate of the provincial parties – the ANP and PML-Q in KP and Punjab respectively.