Conspiracy theorists are likely to smell pre-poll rigging in the outcome of the delimitation process conducted following the 2017 national census as the result smacks of a deliberate violation of the principle of equality of vote because in as many as 81 out of 260 National Assembly constituencies variation in population size exceeds the ordinarily permissible legal limit of 10%. But then perhaps it is not what it appears to be. It is perhaps an honest outcome resulting from adhering strictly, in the conduct of the process, to the legal delimitation principles of geographical compactness and respect for the existing boundaries of administrative units.
Nevertheless this strict adherence to the rules in the conduct of the delimitation process has caused many of the traditional constituencies to disappear. As a result each of the four major
political parties of the country—the PMLN, the PPP, the PTI and the MQM—would surely be confronted in the forthcoming polls with constituencies where they would find it almost impossible to select winning candidates. Many of the traditional constituencies belonging to traditional families or clans or ethnic groups have either disappeared completely or have morphed into what appear to be bizarre political omelets—the demarcation of boundaries within provinces and districts can be instrumental in dividing or uniting ethno-linguistic, political or religious groups.
The clubbing together of their pockets of population in a certain manner can have a make-or-break impact on electoral performance. In urban Sindh the crises that have engulfed Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are most likely to benefit the PPP where the former previously had the upper hand because of the delimitations demarcated by a military dictator as per the desire of the MQM in return for its unqualified political support for President General Pervez Musharraf. In fact all of the past delimitations since 1985 were ‘designed’ by military dictators to facilitate their preferred candidates. General Zia in 1985, General Aslam Beg (fronted by Ghulam Ishaq Khan) in 1988 and General Musharraf in 2002 and subsequently had indulged in this game of pre-poll rigging through delimitation to obtain the desired electoral results. One can identify varying degrees of discrepancies in the population size of electoral constituencies in the fresh delimitation proposals laid out by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN)has observed that rules pertaining to delimitation could not sufficiently operationalize the legal principle of equality of vote among constituencies.
The Election Act 2017 allows ECP to deviate from permissible limit in only exceptional cases; however, the reasons for any such deviation must be recorded in the Delimitation Order. Of 81 constituencies, 59 constituencies have a variation rate between 11% and 20%; 11 constituencies have variation between 21% and 30%; six constituencies have a higher degree of variation between 31% and 40% and in cases of five constituencies, this variation is exorbitantly high falling between 41% and 50%. Each of the three constituencies of Islamabad houses a population 14% less than the national average of population per NA constituency.
Similarly, the population in Balochistan NA constituencies is also lower than the national average while the population size of constituencies in the remaining three provinces is above the national average. The variation in population sizes becomes even more obvious within provinces. For instance, NA-37 Tank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) represents 391,885 citizens, while a population of around 1.2 million in NA-35 Bannu is suggested to be represented by one National Assembly constituency. The power of vote for Bannu people will be less than a half of one to be enjoyed by people living in Tank constituency. Similarly, in Punjab, NA-37 Jhelum-II has been demarcated as a seat with a population of 546,113 citizens, while NA-87 Hafizabad-I has a population of almost 1.2 million- almost double the Jhelum constituency.
In Sindh, NA-199 Shikarpur-II has been created with a population of 588,185 citizens, while NA-197 Kashmore represents a population of 1,089,169 individuals. In Balochistan, NA-262 Kachhi-cum-Jhal Magsi has been allocated a population of just 386,255 citizens against NA-268 Mastung-cum-chaghai-cum-kalat-cum-Shaheed Sikandarabad-cum-Nushki that will represent almost thrice this population i.e. 1,083,497 citizens. Nationally, the Balochistan constituency NA-262 Kachhi-cum-Jhal Magsi is the smallest with regards to the population size while the KP constituency NA-65 is the largest.
The disparities become more visible when ECP’s voter statistics are applied on the suggested constituencies. If ECP’s voter statistics updated in October 2017 are projected on fresh delimitation proposals, the constituency sizes vary between a voter size of 130,000 to more than 600,000. FAFEN analysis of potential voting population of suggested constituencies suggests that two NA constituencies – one each in Balochistan and KP – will have less than 150,000 registered voters. On an average, each NA constituency will potentially have more than 364,000 voters; however, the inter-constituency distribution of voters is skewed. For instance, one Member of National Assembly (MNA) each will represent 130,000 voters for NA-262 and 617,000 voters of NA-19 Haripur. As many as 73 NA constituencies will have fewer voters than national average of voting population per NA constituency and 85 constituencies will have voters above this average. As many as 19 constituencies –— 10 in Balochistan and three each in KP, Sindh and ICT – will have a voting population between 150,000 and 249,999 voters. As proposed, more than one third of all NA constituencies, 78 to be precise, will have 250,000 to 349,999 voters.
Majority of Sindh constituencies (42 of 61) will have this voting population range. As many as 20 constituencies in Punjab and 13 in KP will also join their Sindh counterparts to have voters in this range. More than half of the overall NA constituencies (138) will have a voting population between 350,000 and 450,000 voters. Overwhelming majority of Punjab constituencies (107 of 141) will fall under this median bracket. As many as 15 NA constituencies will have voters between 450,000 and 550,000 and four constituencies will have more than 550,000 voters. Any attempt on the part of ECP to try to re-delimit the constituencies adhering to the principle of equality of vote would cause the elections to be delayed by months which no mainstream political party is in favor of.
Therefore, despite the fact that many of the traditional constituencies seem to have disappeared the mainstream political parties are likely to accept the results of delimitation process conducted under the 2017 election rules. However, those who see some behind the scene adjustments maneuvered by some hidden hands point to this very fact as evidence of foul play—the fact that the mainstream political parties were left with no choice but to enter the election fray almost blindfolded on the precise profile of the constituencies. If one went by the thinking of these cynics, one is constrained to believe that the delimitation process has been doctored by the deep state with the sole purpose of rendering it almost impossible for the ruling PMLN to form governments either in Islamabad or Lahore following the 2018 general elections. They believe that the deep state would repeat in 2018 general elections what it did in the Senate Chairman’s Election process and block the PMLN’s bid to win back the office of the Prime Minister and that of Punjab Chief Minister even if the PMLN were to succeed in winning enough seats to position itself as the single largest Party in the NA and Punjab PA.
They suspect the PMLN would be stopped at the centre by a coalition between the PPP and the PTI and in Punjab by a coalition between the PTI and the MMA. They believe with the MQM almost out of the reckoning, the PPP would sweep both urban and rural Sindh in the forthcoming elections. It is also suspected that it wouldbe helped by hidden hands to make some significant incursions in KP; but would not be allowed to gain even an insignificant foot-hold in Punjab where the PTI and the MMA would be allowed to reduce the winning margin of the PMLN both in National Assembly and Provincial Assembly elections. Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) is likely to be allowed to sweep the province and join up with the PPP at the centre to offer the PTI an opportunity to stop the PMLN from re-grabbing power by entering into a coalition with the PPP and BAP. Perhaps even the MMA and the FATA MNAs would join the coalition. And in Balochistan BAP will either join the PPP or PTI to form the provincial government. The PPP would appear to be the main gainer following the forthcoming elections with governments at the centre and Sindh, the PTI winning two provinces (Punjab and KP), BAP winning Balochistan and the PMLN confined to the opposition aisle both in the centre and Punjab.