Fahad Ali looks forward to
In an action that was doubted by many, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) declared holding by-elections on 33 seats of the National Assembly when the resignations of PTI MNAs, pending since April 2022, were unexpectedly accepted by the ECP and duly notified causing the seats to fall vacant. The sudden acceptance of these resignations happened after it was reported that the opposition was planning to bring a confidence motion against the coalition government. Contentious by elections to these seats are scheduled to be held on 16 March 2023 in geographically divergent constituencies of the country. The vacant series are extremely varied ranging from Swat to Haripur, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Bhakkar, Multan, Karachi and Quetta. This development indicates that the electoral process is considered as the ultimate option for determining political priorities along with re-fixing the badly dented democratic process. This is indeed a step in the right direction as it would spell the end of the highly disputed electoral session that was unveiled in 2018.
The electoral process in the country has started and it not only comprises of by-elections to the national parliament but will also be held to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies that were recently dissolved. The first step taken by the ECP is to hold by-elections to NA seats numbered 93 out of which by-elections to 33 seats have been announced. As far as elections to the provincial assemblies is concerned, as mandated under Article 224 of the Constitution, these elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the two provincial assemblies. In this context the ECP has proposed holding elections for the Punjab legislature between 9 and 13 April and for KP between 15 to 17 April. It is clear that the proposed dates indicate the intention of the ECP to initiate and finish this exercise within the allocated 90-days duration that would fall at the latter half of the month of Ramadan.
Though there is no bar on holding elections for national and provincial elections on different dates but the current situation is quite curious in its content. The most important aspect of the situation is that ECP is now faced with holding elections to no less than two-thirds of the national assembly seats. This is a radically anomalous state of affairs that has put the policy makers in a quandary. The real question is about the validity of a truncated federal legislature that has been brought to this position after prolonged contention. Apart from contentious political considerations the attention is also drawn towards the cost of this exercise as this exigency was not worked out before and its costs were not budgeted. This implies that extra funds are required to be allocated that would become burdensome keeping in view the precarious financial position of the national exchequer. It is well-known that polls need plenty of expenditure and such exercise done frequently has the potential of seriously affecting the national budgetary patterns.
It is also seriously debated whether these by-polls would end up being wasted as the opposition planning to contest them has publicly affirmed its intention of not sitting in the house. Moreover, the newly elected members will have, at best, few months to sit in the assembly and such an outcome is widely taken as wastage of money and effort. The situation is such that the very integrity of the electoral exercise, looked down upon as contentious and unproductive by the powerful segments of establishment segments, would be fatally compromised and may lose its credibility harming its claims to govern the country. In the annals of democratic governance, electoral exercise is undertaken for far fewer seats during the course of an electoral term agreed for in the constitution but holding elections for such a large number of seats actually negates the very essence of democratic governance. In the absence of consensual agreement on the nature and composition of representative institutions, they lose their legitimacy and the current dissatisfaction with them is symptomatic of the general public aversion of them.
It must also be borne in mind that the credibility of the ECP is already called to question and putting it to further test would prove detrimental to the democratic governance. In the prevailing bitter scenario it looks certain that any action undertaken by the ECP would be contested and this implies that the future of the refilled national legislature would be highly untenable and may prove self-defeating ultimately. Another point to ponder is that the by-elections will be held under the supervision of the incumbent government instead of a caretaker set up and will be open to dispute. The situation is required to be viewed in the backdrop of the complete distrust between the political elements meaning thereby that the chances of a political compromise are extremely remote further complicating the situation. The prevailing circumstances call for refraining from further treading into uncharted territory whereby it would become very difficult to extricate the system from its harms.
In a curious twist to the situation, the chairman of PTI has announced to set another record by contesting by-elections for all the 33 vacated seats of the National Assembly. Earlier, in last October, he had created a record by running for eight constituencies and made history by bagging six of them proving that he was politically very virile and unable to be beaten in electoral competition. This development has opened up a door that is highly unconventional and many observers are baffled by this move. The reasons for being dumbfounded are many particularly the oft-repeated assertion of the chairman PTI that he considers the incumbent parliament as unworthy of being the part of as it is full of public representatives who he considers unworthy to be its member. He has also proclaimed that he would contest by-elections not to take part in the proceedings of the house but as a measure of convincing the forces that matter of the need to conduct fresh national polls forthwith because he is sure that the NA has lost all credibility as a representative institution.
This unexpected turn of events has cast an ominously negative shadow on the already fractured governance in the country. The incumbent coalition government is unwilling to test its popularity in elections held before time as it has expended its considerable political capital while trying to steady the sinking economic ship. In the process it has taken highly unpopular decisions under the pressure of IMF that have given rise to extremely high levels of inflation breaking the back of the masses. The government is insistent that it should be allowed time till the fresh elections due in October of this year so that it brings back the economy on an even keel and recaptures its political acceptance and popularity. This consideration obviously is not acceptable to the opposition that has kept up its pressure resulting in a standoff that has exacerbated instability in the country. If the announced by-elections will eventually succeed in breaking the logjam is anybody’s guess but otherwise this exercise will end up in nothing. Quite obviously the situation is dire and experienced political experts are reluctant to hazard any guess in the matter. TW