BY ARUN KUMAR SHRIVASTAV
Pakistan's defence minister, Khawaja Asif, has affirmed that the general elections planned for October this year will proceed as scheduled, dismissing rumours of a potential postponement. Political experts strongly believe that only timely, free, and fair elections can restore much-needed political stability in Pakistan, especially in the face of a severe economic crisis.
The opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, had expressed concerns that the ruling coalition might attempt to delay the general elections. However, Asif clarified on Sunday that the assemblies would complete their five-year term in August, and the polls would subsequently occur within 60 days. When replying to a question about the timing of the elections, Asif stated that they would indeed take place in October without any delays, as reported by The Express Tribune.
According to the country's constitution, a general election for the National Assembly or a provincial assembly must be conducted within 60 days after the expiration of the assembly's term unless the assembly has been dissolved earlier. Earlier this year, the PTI dissolved the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies, hoping to compel the ruling alliance to dissolve other legislatures and hold elections within 90 days. But, the talks between the government and the PTI regarding the election date failed to yield any results.
The government has consistently opposed holding snap polls or conducting separate national and provincial elections, citing concerns such as security, insufficient funds, and the absence of updated census results. Even the intervention of the Supreme Court failed to facilitate elections in the two provinces, where caretaker governments continue to function beyond their 90-day term.
The ruling coalition's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has taken steps to persuade other parties in the alliance about the importance of holding elections on time. PPP Co-Chairman and retired President Asif Ali Zardari have explicitly stated that delaying the general elections beyond October would be unwise. The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), a think tank focused on political and public policy research, has also called for free and fair general elections for all assemblies by October 2023. They emphasise that the Election Commission of Pakistan must be fully prepared for this task.
Pildat highlights that the current National Assembly will complete its five-year term on August 12, suggesting that the fresh general election must occur within 60 days, as the Constitution of Pakistan mandates. Therefore, the latest conceivable date for the 2023 general elections would be October 12. However, Pildat clarifies that if the National Assembly is dissolved even a day before the completion of its term, the election must be held within 90 days.
The political landscape in Pakistan has been marred by instability and polarisation, which began with a no-confidence vote last April that ousted former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Since then, the issue has only intensified, with Khan leading a popular opposition movement against the incumbent coalition government and the military, organising numerous large-scale rallies throughout the country.
Politically, the government sees an advantage in the coming elections. It allows more time to address the pressing economic crisis and improve its lacklustre domestic performance. Although its diplomatic foreign policy approach has been relatively more successful, its impact may not significantly influence the elections. On the other hand, Khan's party achieved notable success in a series of by-elections held in July and October 2022. In an attempt to impede Khan and his party, the state has resorted to legal cases, following a familiar playbook often employed against opposition politicians in Pakistan, although with limited success due to the involvement of the courts.
The general elections may not prove to be a panacea for Pakistan, which is going through one of the worst economic crises in decades. Instead, it may pitch the ruling parties, the opposition, and the military against each other on a renewed note. Imran Khan's PTI has already accused the military of trying to prevent it from coming to power. The ruling coalition of the Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People's Party know the power games and how to play them. Khan may already have tasted it in how his party leaders have deserted him in the aftermath of the May 9 violence. Not just that, media outlets have been advised to black him out. He would finally know that the crowd is not the strength.
For the world, it's another experiment with democracy for Pakistan. Let's keep our fingers crossed!