Uncertainty over the schedule of the 2018 election prevails as all political parties are playing politics over the fresh delimitation of constituencies. The last we heard was that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced that the next general election will be held under the old 1998 census because the new census results are going to be officially notified some time in 2018. So why this hue and cry over the issue of fresh delimitation? What has changed between the ECP’s announcement and now?
Experts suggest that the only thing that has changed is that the Federal Bureau of Statistics (FBS) has announced provisional results for census 2017. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it will be difficult to hold the election under the old delimitations because it will raise serious credibility issues for the ECP. The ECP is now under a sort of compulsion to undertake fresh delimitation of constituencies because there may only be miniscule of difference between the provisional and official election result.
The Pakistan People’s Party claims to have reservations on the results of the census, especially regarding the population of Sindh. It has therefore demanded an approval of the bill on constitutional amendment regarding delimitation by the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
PPP Senator Murtaza Wahab says, “The PPP will always uphold the constitution. Delimitation is not possible based on the latest census under article 51(5) of the constitution of Pakistan, unless we amend the said clause.” Article 51(5) requires the seats in the National Assembly to be allocated to each province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Federal Capital on the basis of population in accordance with the officially published results of the last census.
Tahir Mehdi, an independent researcher based in Islamabad, concurs that the law requires the constituencies to be demarcated on the basis of latest census data — official and not provisional — in the country.
Where the total numbers of National Assembly seats remain unchanged at 272, the number of seats within the four provinces and federal capital will be altered. According to Mehdi, as per the provisional results, Punjab, the largest province in terms of seats in the National Assembly, will face a cut of seven seats in the lower house of the parliament. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will gain four extra seats; Balochistan two, and the federal capital one. The situation in Sindh will remain constant in terms of number of seats.
“So, a comprehensive delimitation exercise must be undertaken to redraw the constituency map. While the constituencies are evenly divided on the basis of population, the only thing the ECP tries to manage is that the political and administrative boundaries remain the same in order to have a smooth functioning of government. It means that the constituencies are delimited in a way that they don’t transgress the boundaries of a district. What has changed is that the government has formed many new districts since the 1998 census. Hence, with the new delimitation exercise, one could see substantial changes in constituencies across the country,” explains Mehdi in detail.
One basic principle of delimitation is to ensure representation of every district in the parliament. “The new delimitation will change the political maps of all districts by setting a new challenge for traditional aspirants,” adds Mehdi.
While experts praise the new Election Act 2017 which according to them empowers the top polls body to initiate a review of the boundaries within two years after every general elections, they question the actual deviation in population of various constituencies which should not be more than 10 per cent under the law.
If political parties fail to reach any consensus on the issue of delimitation then the ECP may seek the Supreme Court’s help in deciding if the fresh elections are held under the 1998 census or under the provisional results of the 2017 census which are unacceptable to both the MQM-Pakistan and the PPP. The role of the ECP is critical; it has already given a deadline of November 18 to the government to complete the required legislation which is likely to pave the way for the delimitation process.
Mehdi says the PPP has a grouse against fresh delimitation “because since the last census, a maximum number of new districts have been carved out in Sindh. The new delimitation will create a lot of uncertainty and may lead to some losses in the coming election”.
Muddassir Rizvi, who heads democracy projects at FAFEN (Free and Fair Election Network), thinks the government is trying to make a one-time exception to the constitution — “to allow for delimitation on the provisional data of census 2017. This is not the right approach. Constitution should not be amended to make exceptions. Instead the government should take appropriate administrative measures to ensure that the census is finalised and officially published as soon as possible.
“There is absolutely no need to amend the constitution to provide for delimitation on the basis of provisional results. The government must focus on developing a political settlement based on census results and its official publication.”
He further adds that the FBS head may be asked to appear before the parliament, in-camera, “to allay the concerns of various political parties and to explain to them the process and rigour that might have been employed in the conducting of census”.
It would perhaps be a good idea to learn from the Indian Delimitation Commission whose main task is to redraw the boundaries of various constituencies and have a similar body here. It could be a powerful body whose orders cannot be challenged in a court of law.
But the PTI top leadership does not think there is any need to form a commission. According to them, it is the right time to delimitate constituencies as the country is already in the election mode.
“It’s a failure of the PML-N government. They are not able to get their numbers in the parliament and they are trying to do it in an unseemly haste. They did not go to CCI and they did not even try to build a consensus on this very serious issue,” says PTI Secretary General Jahangir Khan Tareen.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has called a meeting of the CCI on Monday “to discuss census and delimitation issue” in order to settle the deadlock over the constitutional amendment on delimitation.
The delay in the proposed Delimitation Bill 2017 is unfortunate. It is ultimately the responsibility of the ruling party to take forward its legislative agenda. All political parties, in the end, must come together on issues of national interest — and ensure timely free and fair elections in Pakistan.