Islamabad, Pakistan – The announcement that Pakistan’s general elections will take place in late January instead of November has evoked mixed reactions among political parties and analysts, with some expressing scepticism as to whether the polls would be free and fair.
Shortly after the country’s parliament was dissolved on August 9, concerns were raised that elections would be delayed past the constitutionally required 90-day period.
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On Thursday, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced in a statement that the elections would now be held during the last week of January.
Aasiya Riaz, a senior official of the independent political think tank, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), said on Friday that the ECP announcement is a step in the right direction but lacks essential information.
“There is no date and no schedule of general election yet, and that is a concern,” Riaz told Al Jazeera, adding that further delays must be avoided.
“A fresh poll must take place, and it cannot be postponed indefinitely,” she said.
The ECP statement said that the final list of redrawn constituency maps will be issued on November 30, allowing for a 54-day election programme consisting of filing nomination documents, appeals, and campaigning.
It is constitutionally mandated that polls could only be held after constituencies are redrawn according to the result of the latest census, a process that would take at least four months, the ECP said.
Political observer Benazir Shah said it was worrying that a specific date for the election has not yet been set and accused the ECP of “evading one of its primary responsibilities”.
“There is no explanation from the ECP on what is causing the delay for giving a date or election schedule,” she said.
“This dithering comes at a time when some politicians, seen as close to military establishment, are hinting at an extended tenure of the caretaker government. It is important for the ECP to address these fears,” Shah said from Lahore.
Since the dissolution of the assembly last month, Pakistan has been ruled by a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, whose mandate is to ensure the holding of a transparent election.
However, with the country’s main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, having faced months of state-wide crackdowns, concerns have been raised about whether the caretaker government and ECP are capable of holding fair elections.
Khan and his government were removed last year in April through a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The 70-year-old, who was campaigning across the country to hold early elections since his removal, was jailed on August 5 for corruption charges.
Later, a court suspended his three-year sentence, but Khan has remained in prison over charges related to the “cypher” case, in which he was accused of making public the contents of a diplomatic cable for political gains.
PTI leader Taimur Jhagra criticised the ECP’s announcement, saying that holding elections 90 days after parliament is dissolved is “mandated in black and white in the constitution”.
“We are setting more and more dangerous precedents for our democratic system. Free and fair elections are on the critical path for political stability in Pakistan. And political stability in Pakistan is and should be important to the world,” Jhagra said, adding that despite the delay, his party will “trounce” its rivals on election day.
“The caretaker government and ECP’s track record is such that it is unlikely they will conduct fair elections, but the public and media must put enough pressure on them to make it happen for the sake of a stable Pakistan,” he said.
Political uncertainty has added to Pakistan’s already uncertain economic future.
The country was hit by a balance of payments crisis as it attempted to service high levels of external debt and crushing inflation before the International Monetary Fund granted a $3bn bailout package in June.
The previous coalition government undertook unpopular steps, such as removing subsidies on energy prices and gradually kept increasing the fuel and energy tariff, which led to record-breaking inflation in the country amidst nationwide protests.
Security concerns also reared their head, as the country’s northwestern and southwestern provinces bore the brunt of regular attacks by Pakistan Taliban, who have made a resurgence this year.
Faisal Karim Kundi, a senior leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a main coalition partner in the previous government, said that he believes timely and transparent polls would solve much of the uncertainty the country is facing.
“You cannot rule a nuclear-armed country in an ad hoc manner by an interim set-up. You need to have a government which has the trust of the public, and it is only possible through clean elections. Only that can help us get out of this situation,” Kundi said.
Pervez Rashid, a top leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), the party of previous Prime Minister Sharif, pushed back at the criticism against the ECP’s announcement, saying that elections are a significant event and his party has “complete trust” in the election body.
Challenging the notion about concerns regarding the fairness of the polls, Rashid claimed that his party was given a fair shot in only “one out of the last four elections”.
“We have had polls in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2018. Only once PMLN was given opportunity to participate fairly, and as a result, we saw who won the 2013 elections,” Rashid said.
The PMLN official further said that other political parties “must understand the shortcomings” of the system and learn lessons.
“We have suffered in the past, but we have learned our lesson. I hope all of us can play our part in preparing for elections while remaining within the ambit of the constitution.”