Despite the year 2023 being seen as the election year for several months, a touch of irony sees it draw to a close without a single vote being cast in the general elections – due to a delay of a month and eight days for reasons other than death and calamity.
On November 2, an agreement was reached between President Dr Arif Alvi and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold the general elections on February 8, 2024, knowing that it is well beyond the constitutionally mandated 90-day period.
The president and ECP too sat together only after the SC intervened to hammer out the polls’ date.
However, this is not the first time the country has witnessed delays in holding polls as the general elections were delayed twice, first in 1988 and then in 2008, because of the deaths of former military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq and ex-PM Benazir Bhutto, respectively, just before the polls in those years.
The postponement of the current polls is peculiar, stemming from technical reasons believed to have been manufactured by the previous coalition government.
This took place right before their term ended, with the national assembly being dissolved just three days shy of the constitutionally mandated five-year threshold.
‘Delayed on self-created grounds’
“The previous elections were delayed because of the law-and-order situation but this time around the polls are being delayed because of the self-created grounds,” eminent scholar Professor Dr Hassan Askari said.
“It was a deliberate decision to delay polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its political forces’ conscious decision to delay general elections now.”
Professor Askari said that it was a failure of ECP as well as the political leadership as they didn’t want to timely hold polls in the country.
He said that the PML-N-led government deliberately delayed polls by notifying census results just a few days before dissolving the assembly as it made it mandatory for the ECP to go for delimitation exercise afresh.
Professor Tahir Naeem Malik of NUML University feels that elections are held in Pakistan once the powerful stakeholders reach a consensus as “ego” has always been playing a major role in Pakistan’s politics over the years. “ECP had one job to timely hold elections but it didn’t do it,” Professor Malik noted.
“ECP shows readiness whenever someone wants to hold elections but ECP itself has shown less respect for the constitution in the recent past.”
Apart from the delay in holding timely elections because of the dictatorship periods, the elections were delayed in 1988 after the then-military ruler Gen Zia had prematurely dissolved the national assembly on May 29, 1988.
The elections had to be held within the next three months but they were delayed until November that year, primarily, because of Zia’s death in a plane crash in August that year.
Fast forward to 2008 when the ECP postponed the next parliamentary polls for several weeks because of unrest following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh. Initially, the polls were scheduled for January 8, 2008, but they were delayed till February 18, 2008.
Though the polls were postponed in 1988 and 2008 due to the deaths, Pakistan’s political history is dotted with frequent and long intervals of military rules that held the Constitution in abeyance and suspended the democratic process for years without facing any accountability later on.
In recent times, Punjab and K-P are other examples of how the constitution can conveniently be ignored with impunity as polls have been delayed in both provinces and the interim setups have continued beyond their constitutional limit until now.
It all started when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) dissolved both the provincial assemblies in January hoping that it would compel the then PML-N-led coalition government to go for snap polls by dissolving the National Assembly.
However, it didn’t happen and despite the country’s top court’s intervention, things have remained in control of the interim setups till now.
Other than the military rules and the period where the constitution was ignored, political engineering and the demand of having a level-playing field remained the constant elements of the elections in Pakistan.
‘Perpetual bad books’
However, political commentators say someone has always remained in the bad books of powerful stakeholders. In the past, they pointed out, it was personalities like Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir, and others. Currently, they indicate, it’s PTI chairman, Imran Khan, now incarcerated in Adiala Jail.
Nevertheless, as opposed to the previous occasions, youth would be playing a crucial role in the upcoming general elections as age-wise analysis of the ECP data shows that youth aged between 18 and 35 is at around 57.1 million, making up 45 per cent of those who are eligible to vote.
The same percentage for the 2018 elections was 43.8 per cent.
‘Youth can still re-write the fate’
The ECP data also shows that the number of registered voters in Pakistan has increased by 21 million over a period of four years, stating the total number of registered voters in the country in 2018 was nearly 106 million and it rose to around 127 million by July 25 this year.
Those aged 56 or above, who have witnessed what has happened on the country’s political scene over the years, also amount to almost 24 million or 18.9 per cent of the total voter count.
Male voters comprise 54 per cent or 68.5 million of the total voters while the number of female voters has also increased from 46.7 million in 2018 to 58.5 million in 2023.
Despite political, economic and constitutional crises coupled with worsening political engineering with PTI leaders’ scripted interviews, their post-release re-arrests, almost one-sided media trials and a TV ban on mentioning Imran’s name, political experts hope that the voters, especially the youth, would ultimately be able to write the fate of the delayed general elections through their votes.
“Youth can play a vital role in changing polls’ results but it all depends on high voter turnout,” Professor Askari said, adding that if the youth’s turnout remains high then it might go in PTI’s favour as Imran Khan is popular among them.
On political engineering, Professor Askari said that someone has always faced the wrath of the powers that be but a high turnout of voters can change that too.
Professor Malik seconded Professor Askari on the youth turnout factor, saying if the voter doesn’t feel that his vote won’t matter then the results can be altogether different in the 2024 elections. Any party getting more votes from youth will have an edge over others, he said, adding currently the youth’s tilt was toward PTI.
On political engineering, he said that voters, especially youth, can pour cold water on all the plans.