FAFEN outlines critical challenges to early elections
ISLAMABAD, April 4, 2022: Expressing grave concerns at the recent political developments and ensuing constitutional crisis, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) has identified multiple constitutional, legal and operational challenges to the conduct of an early election.
While the constitutionality of the measures leading to the dissolution of the National Assembly will be decided by the Supreme Court, FAFEN hopes for a prompt decision by the apex court, which rightly took up the matter suo moto, as any delay will continue to accrue collateral issues arising out of the constitutional deadlock. Public confusion and political divisions that have already arisen as a result can potentially translate into violent expression. Political parties have a great responsibility to manage their workers and make sure that political disagreements do not turn into violence especially ahead of an early election.
According to FAFEN, an early election may not be a smooth process in view of several constitutional and legal complications. The most critical factor for the legitimacy of any election will be the completion of the Election Commission. The Commission Members from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have yet to be appointed. The constitutional procedure for the appointment of Members of the Commission after the dissolution of the National Assembly under a caretaker setup remains unclear under Article 213 (2B), which requires the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to initiate the process in a specially formed committee comprising only senators.
Another concern is the constitutional and legal status of the current delimitation of National and Provincial Assembly seats since it was carried out on the basis of provisional results of the 2017 census. The 25th Constitutional Amendment Act, 2017 through a proviso to Article 51 (5) of the Constitution provided for only a one-time exception to delimitations on the basis of provisional census results for GE-2018. A fresh delimitation on the basis of the last preceding census officially published is, therefore, essential for the legality of future elections as per Section 17(2) of the Elections Act, 2017. However, the process of delimitation cannot be completed within three months as per the requirements of Chapter III of the Elections Act, 2017 and corresponding rules.
Similarly, confusion continues to shroud the practicality and enforcement of the recent amendments to the Elections Act, 2017 pertaining to the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and the facilitation of overseas Pakistanis to vote in their country of residence, which were passed by the Joint Sitting of the Parliament without the support of the opposition parties. FAFEN has always urged the need for electoral reforms through political consensus as majoritarian changes to election law always lead to challenges to the legitimacy of the election outcome and political stability. Nevertheless, there is a need to grant representation to overseas Pakistanis as all political parties have made such commitments to the country’s diaspora in their election manifestoes.
The under-registration of women on the electoral rolls is also one of the major issues that the Election Commission had started to successfully address through targeted campaigns. While the ECP has been able to arrest the rising gender gap on the electoral rolls, there still are 11.37 million women who remain unregistered as voters. In case the elections are called within three months, the electoral rolls will have to be frozen thirty days before the announcement of the election program as per Section 39 of the Elections Act, thereby rendering millions of women voters disenfranchised. Although ECP can employ powers under Sections 4(3) and 49 of the Elections Act to maximize voter registration, such efforts may not yield adequate results considering the scale of the gender gap on the electoral rolls in a short time.
Another challenge to early elections is the operational and logistical preparation by the ECP involving recruiting and training around one million polling staff, and printing, publishing and transportation of election materials as well as selection of locations for more than 10,000 polling stations that are to be established due to the addition of more than 15 million voters on the electoral rolls since GE-2018. The quality of these critical electoral processes is vital to the integrity of any election.
FAFEN believes in the continuity of the democratic process as the only way to resolve the political disputes and disagreements particularly related to the country’s election system. Even sincere efforts to correct the election system-related issues that are devoid of a larger political consensus will be counter-productive and will add to post-election political instability. Protecting the integrity of any future election is vital to strengthening democracy as well as ensuring the much-needed stability of political institutions that is critical to the country’s social and economic development.