A Pakistani voter casts her ballot in a by-election in Lahore. File photo: AFP/Arif Ali
A Pakistani voter casts her ballot in a by-election in Lahore. File photo: AFP/Arif Ali

Pakistan’s upcoming elections may be delayed as voices of dissent have begun to rise from different political parties demanding – for different reasons – an extension of the polling schedule.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) last week announced polling as scheduled with the elections to be held by July 25, both for the national and provincial assemblies.

The new development may trouble the ECP because it would require election scheduling to be done afresh and a revised election program drawn up if concerned authorities chose to delay the polls.

Earlier, the commission had put to rest rumors about the holding of timely polls when it announced the election schedule in consultation with the president. However, demands from at least two provinces — Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — for voting to be postponed have aroused fresh doubts on whether polls will be held as scheduled next month.

Different interests seek poll delay

“There seems some real power at work behind the recent moves from different quarters to get the polls delayed,” Zahid Khan, a spokesperson for Awami National Party (ANP) told the Asia Times. He said that the delimitation of constituencies was the real issue that the judiciary was dealing with and the ECP did not have appropriate time to resolve it.

“We had a meeting with the ECP on Wednesday and tried to get their version on the delimitation issue but they were beating about the bush and did not talk straight to dissipate our apprehension,” Zahid said, adding that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other like-minded pro-establishment parties would prefer to delay the election till the political power of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) weakens.

Asia Times was unable to contact Babar Yaqoob Fateh Muhammad, secretary of the ECP, for comments despite repeated efforts. But a source at the commission confirmed that it was under intense pressure from senior judges to look into the grievances of political parties about census-related delimitation of federal and provincial constituencies.

According to Pakistani law, the constituencies of national and provincial assemblies have to be delimited based on the geographical distribution of population after every census. The recent delimitation process was followed by accusations of political influence and violation of standard procedures.

Judges in the Islamabad High Court had overturned 10 cases related to constituencies up till Thursday and 31 similar petitions are due to be assessed over the next few days. These petitions by political parties and individual candidates challenging the delimitations will determine if polls will be delayed till the judicial process is completed.

The right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Karachi-based, leftist secular party Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) raised serious doubt about the holding of polls next month, saying that unless census-related issues are sorted out through a validation process, the polls cannot be held in time.

The MQM even approached the Election Commission to hinder the issuing of election schedules and threatened that the party may boycott the upcoming elections if their demands are not met.

Other electoral issues

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces, where anti-Nawaz Sharif forces were in power, have officially declared that they were uncomfortable with the election date, saying it should be extended to “facilitate the exercise of voting right with peace of mind”.

Outgoing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and JI provincial chief Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan urged the Commission to hold polls for the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) seats along with the upcoming general elections. As per the FATA merger bill, the tribal region is a part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the election is planned within a year after the 2018 general election.

Highly reliable sources in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf told Asia Times that the Chief Minister wrote to the chief election commissioner on Wednesday urging that the election for 21 FATA seats be held at the same time as the general election. “If it requires the general elections to be delayed then it must be rescheduled to fulfill a constitutional requirement,” the sources quoted the Chief Minister as saying.

A day after the MQM wrote to the Commission, Home Minister Baluchistan Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti called for the election to be set back a month and moved a resolution calling for a delay in the Baluchistan assembly. The resolution cited hot weather in most parts of the province during July, which discourages voters from taking part in the election process.

“We did not hatch a conspiracy to demand a little bit of a delay in the election as we sincerely want massive participation of the masses in the general election,” Bugti told Asia Times. He said the non-availability of electricity at most polling stations also made things worse for polling staff.

“There is no provision in the constitution that could facilitate an extension in the date of the election when it is announced by the ECP,” said Saeed Ghani, president of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)’s Karachi chapter. He said the resolution moved in Baluchistan had no legal binding on the Commission, which is an independent body and can, under the law, go ahead with the planned election schedule without any outside intervention.

To make things worse for the ECP, the PTI took a u-turn and rescinded its consensus nominees for the slot of the caretaker chief minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. That will create further hurdles in the election process and delay the polls.