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Pakistan: Amid uncertainty on when to hold elections, who will blink first: the country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice or Prime Minister?

Pakistan Supreme Court has ordered elections to two provincial assemblies on May 14 but the Shehbaz Sharif government wants simultaneous national and provincial elections in October. Imran Khan’s PTI concurs with simultaneous polls but fears that waiting too long could get Khan disqualified in the interim

May 09, 2023 / 12:12 PM IST
Shehbaz Sharif

Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif has refused to comply with the SC order to hold elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies on May 14. (Image: Reuters/File )

An unbecoming stalemate persists on holding elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies on May 14 with Pakistan’s higher judiciary aligned in direct confrontation against the Parliament and Federal government. The three-member Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice (CJ) Umar Ata Bandial has been adamant that its April 4 order has to be complied with.

The Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) Federal Government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has refused to comply with the order. The National Assembly twice turned down requests to provide funds to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold the elections. The Defence Ministry also told the CJ, in-camera, about their inability to spare Army personnel for election duties because of national security concerns.

Judiciary Proposes, Government Disposes

Article 224(2) of the Pakistan Constitution (1973) prescribes elections within 90 days to both Federal and Provincial Assemblies if dissolved before full terms, or within 60 days after a full term. Article 224 (1) further prescribes the setting up of caretaker governments to conduct the elections. A consensus has prevailed in the recent past to hold national and provincial elections on the same day.

The Punjab Assembly was dissolved on January 18, 2023.  The 90 days limit has long lapsed, and there’s no progress even after the SC’s fresh order of April 24 holding the ECP’s election schedule for October 8 invalid. No specific date was decided for the KP elections.

After the CJ found himself in a blind alley, a petition filed by an individual citizen, Kashif Khan was hastily admitted in Court just before Eid ul Fitr (April 21), following which the Chief Justice asked all political parties to sit together and thrash out a consensus date on which elections could be held. Though the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI)’s three-member delegation met the PDM government team, the dialogue could not reach agreement on the date of elections. However, all agreed that Federal and Provincial elections should be held on the same day.

PTI’s Fears For Imran

The PDM government insists it should pass the annual budget in June and last out its full term, till August 13 and hold elections thereafter, by the end of October, 2023. The PTI leadership fears Imran Khan may be disqualified before then, for illegalities committed either in the Toshakhana goods’ sales or foreign funding cases. They apprehend, the benign protective umbrella of CJ Umar Ata Bandial may not be available after his impending retirement on September 16. The term of President, Arif Alvi, also known to be the PTI’s man, ends on September 9, 2023.

The 2023 Census of Pakistan has just been completed but elections may have to be held on the basis of the 2017 Census, as approval of the Council of Common Interests is mandatory and fresh delimitation of constituencies at both the national and provincial level has to follow. At present, the National Assembly has 266 directly elected seats, with 141 from Punjab, 61 in Sindh, 45 in KP, 16 in Baluchistan and 3 from the Federal Capital Area (FCA).

After the PTI National Assembly members resigned en masse last year, the PDM alliance has a comfortable majority therein. The Punjab assembly has 371 seats. Before its dissolution, the PTI was able to win a razor-thin confidence vote, with 184 seats against the PDM’s 171, due also to the controversial disqualification of defecting PTI MPAs by the Judiciary interpreting or “rewriting” Article 63A (dealing with disqualification of defectors) of the Constitution.

The Battle For Punjab

Ever since bypolls to 20 Punjab Assembly constituencies held in July, 2022 wherein Imran Khan’s PTI won 17 seats, it has been riding on a wave of popularity in Punjab built on a narrative of unfair ouster from power, whereas the real reason was his falling out with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Imran Khan continues to rail nonstop against the new Army Chief, Gen Asim Munir and Maj Gen Faisal Naseer, DG, Counter Intelligence in ISI. His henchmen talk of denotifying the former’s appointment.

Understandably so, the top Army Generals have serious reservations about Imran’s return to power. PML (Nawaz) Vice President, the feisty Maryam Nawaz has tried to counter Imran’s narrative, by accusing him of double standards and the CJ, for going out of the way to protect him. This has had only a limited impact.

The history of past elections in Pakistan does not inspire confidence about absence of rigging or conjured results, especially if the Army is on the other side. Many an unpredictable twist or a turn of events await.

Rana Banerji is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

Rana Banerji is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: May 9, 2023 12:12 pm