This article was published in Dawn on Feb 10, 2023, at the following link
Pakistan has never experienced a staggered general election with polls to one or more provincial assemblies taking place months apart from polls to the National Assembly and other provincial assemblies. In the 1970 general election, the first such exercise in the country’s history, general elections to the five provincial assemblies were held ten days after the National Assembly election. In the five subsequent general elections up to 1993, provincial assembly elections took place three days after the National Assembly election. Starting with the 1997 general election, both national and provincial assembly elections were held on the same date, resulting in a significant economy of resources and effort. Also, although elections to the national and provincial assemblies took place with a lag of a few days until 1997, polls to all provincial assemblies have been held on the same date in the 11 general elections in the country’s history.
The Constitution does not necessarily require simultaneous national and provincial assembly elections. It just so happened that the question of holding staggered elections to different assemblies did not arise.
It was the same in India, where elections to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures took place simultaneously in the first four general elections till 1967, after which the national and state elections went out of alignment for one reason or the other. The Indian case is far more complex as they have 28 states and eight union territories compared to just four provinces in Pakistan. The result is that elections to the state legislatures continue to be held throughout the five-year Lok Sabha election cycle. Former president Pranab Mukherjee, former chief election commissioners and parliamentary standing committees in India have expressed concerns about the staggered elections. PM Modi is of the opinion that continuous and frequent elections take a toll on economic and human resources, and party leaders and cadres are perpetually involved in the electoral process, leaving them with very little time for constructive matters.
It is only now, with the premature dissolution of the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assemblies in mid-January, that Pakistan is faced with the prospect of holding staggered elections. Article 224(2) of the Constitution requires that general election to the dissolved assembly be held within 90 days of the dissolution. Although Article 232 mentions the possibility of extending the National Assembly term by up to one year and thus deferring the election to it by the same period, there is no such provision to defer the provincial assembly election. It is understandable that many persons both within the state institutions and outside find it rather difficult to mentally adjust to the possibility of elections to different assemblies taking place at different times in the foreseeable future with all the financial, political and governance implications that would entail.
The staggered elections will dilute, if not outright compromise, the constitutional provision of caretaker governments.
Since Pakistan is probably the only country in the world where new caretaker governments are inducted both at the federal and provincial level during the election period to guard against partisan political influence on the electoral process, the expected staggered elections would see caretaker governments in the two provinces but a partisan political government at the federal level with all the clout and potential to influence election in the two provinces. By the same token, there will be no caretaker governments in Punjab and KP when the National Assembly election takes place later this year. This will raise the real prospect of partisan provincial governments influencing the National Assembly elections in these two provinces, which together contribute about 70 per cent of the National Assembly seats. The ECP is so sensitive to the possibility of partisan governments influencing the elections that it has suspended the elected local governments in KP in the run-up to the provincial assembly election. The staggered elections will, therefore, dilute, if not outright compromise the constitutional provision of caretaker governments in Articles 224 and 224-A.
Given the two provincial assemblies were dissolved about three weeks ago, there is some justifiable anxiety in certain quarters that the polling date and detailed election programme have not been announced yet. There also seems to be some confusion about who exactly is responsible for fixing the polling date in the case of general elections to the two provincial assemblies.
The Constitution does not give clear guidance on who fixes the polling date except when a provincial governor dissolves the provincial assembly; in that case the governor shall, according to Article 105(3)(a), “appoint a date, not later than 90 days from the date of dissolution for holding of a general election to the Assembly…”. Since in the case of both Punjab and KP, the governors of the provinces did not dissolve the legislatures and these were dissolved upon the respective chief minister’s advice, this Article is arguably not applicable in these two cases. Section 57(1) of the Elections Act, 2017 is, however, clearer in that it states: “The president shall announce the date or dates of the general elections after consultation with the Commission.” Sub-section (2) of the same section states that the ECP shall then announce the detailed election programme within seven days of the announcement of the polling date by the president. The initiative of fixing the polling date is, therefore, squarely with the president, most likely upon the advice of the prime minister.
Some commentators had expressed surprise that, contrary to the case of general election for the two provincial assemblies, the ECP was quite efficient in announcing the detailed election programme for by-elections in the National Assembly constituencies vacated after the en masse resignations of PTI MNAs were accepted by the speaker. The possible explanation is that in the case of by-elections, the law doesn’t require the ECP to wait for the announcement of a polling date by the president or governor, but for general election of any assembly, the ECP is bound to follow the date announced by the president.