AS was widely expected, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), on Wednesday, decided to postpone elections for the Punjab Assembly slated for April 30 and proposed October 8 as the new date for the purpose. In a notification, the Commission scrapped the electoral process including the election schedule issued earlier citing security as the major reason for change in the plan. PTI, which dissolved the two assemblies of Punjab and KP with the hope to force the federal government to go for an early general election, has reacted sharply to the postponement describing it as violation of the Constitution and directions of the Supreme Court.
The reaction of the PTI is understandable but the Commission too has legitimate justification to delay polls in view of the ground realities. It is a matter of record that after the split verdict of the Supreme Court, the Commission proposed two dates to the President of Pakistan for holding elections to the Punjab Assembly and Dr. Arif Alvi picked up the date of April 30 for the purpose. Subsequently, the ECP moved ahead with plans to hold the polls on the announced date and held internal meetings as well as consultations with other stakeholders and institutions for the purpose. An election schedule was also issued and the phase of submission of nomination papers for contesting elections was successfully completed. However, the electoral exercise requires huge manpower and this in turn requires hiring of personnel from other institutions for the conduct of the election and security responsibilities, which assume greater significance in the given political environment, rising tension and the fresh wave of terrorism. The situation is so fluid that even the PTI chief, on an almost daily basis, makes claims of plans to eliminate him. The Commission had marathon sessions with the relevant institutions and agencies and the outcome has been shared by the Commission in the notification issued on Wednesday. Punjab Chief Secretary and Inspector General of Police (IGP) informed the stakeholders in a meeting of the serious law and order situation, quoting various incidents in the province and the country. For deputation on election duty, there is a shortfall of approximately 386,623 security personnel, the notification said, which can only be covered by deploying army soldiers and Rangers in static mode. The ECP order said that currently, only one security personnel on average was available per polling station due to a “massive shortfall in police personnel” and the non-provision of army personnel as a static force. It is surely responsibly of the ECP to ensure free, fair and transparent elections but this can only be done if there was adequate manpower to assist, which is not available in the existing environment when personnel of law enforcing agencies were being targeted as highlighted by the latest terrorist attack resulting into martyrdom of Brig. Burki and his companions. Apart from the security environment and inability of the national institutions to extend the required assistance, the Government too was in a fix as provision of huge funds separately for general elections for the two provincial assemblies and an overall general election was a big issue. Political circles as well as legal and constitutional experts have also been pointing out another anomaly in case elections to the two provincial assemblies were held ahead of the country-wide general election. In a policy statement in parliament, Minister for Interior Rana Sanaullah pointed out that the objective of holding fair and transparent elections would stand jeopardized if elections were held separately for the two assemblies. He had a legitimate point in saying that regardless of the fact which party wins polls if held in Punjab on April 30, the results favouring a party there would set a trend for elections to seats of National Assembly and provincial assemblies. In this way, the minister said elections to be held in remaining provincial assemblies and National Assembly later would not provide a level playing field to all the political parties. A party coming to power in Punjab province as a result of April 30 polls, will enjoy an edge over other parties in elections to be held in other provinces and on seats of National Assembly later. As for adherence to the deadline of 90 days, the Supreme Court too was fully aware of the intricacies involved and that is why it had allowed minimum deviation from the timeframe given in the Constitution.