Is Pakistan election-ready?

Can ECP prove political parties wrong by not only ensuring free and fair polls but also by holding them on time?

Mazhar Abbas
In this file photo, election officials count ballots after polls closed during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 25, 2018. — Reuters
In this file photo, election officials count ballots after polls closed during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 25, 2018. — Reuters

The top leadership of Pakistan’s two mainstream political parties, i.e., Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) with a history of love and hate relationship, met in Dubai recently and held marathon sessions on wide-ranging political issues, including the challenges the two sides likely to confront with, in the next general elections otherwise schedule in October, this year but the outcome remains inconclusive over holding it on time or extend it at least till March, next year, according to one of the insiders in Dubai, who is well aware of these talks and developments.

“They did discuss future interim set-up including the care-taker prime minister who could either be from the financial sector or a retired Supreme Court (SC) Judge,” the insider added. Since Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies had already been dissolved the present caretaker setup would continue till the elections. One of the retired SC judges confirmed to me that he was ‘approached’ for his consent.

They have almost reached a consensus over the dissolution of the assemblies —national and provincial in August — as per schedule but since three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has still not been legally cleared from contesting the next general elections due to his lifetime disqualification, despite the removal of legal hitch, he has yet not announced the date of his return to Pakistan. Thus, until and unless his name is cleared the party believes it will be very difficult for him to return and run the party campaign.

Under the circumstances, his possible return is very unlikely before mid-September as due to the court’s summer vacations his plea is very unlikely to be taken up before mid-August. Secondly, the party is also reluctant to file any application in such a circumstance before the Supreme Court as long as the sitting Chief Justice Umer Ata Bandial is there. He will retire on September 17, 2023.

The PPP and former President Asif Ali Zardari, on the other hand, are in favour of early elections i.e. within 90 days after the assemblies’ dissolution, as he and his party are not facing the challenges like PML-N or Sharifs.

Legally, there are also differences of opinion on whether elections could be postponed for six months or a year unless there is an extraordinary situation like war or a major national calamity. According to sources, even though there are certain parameters of financial emergency as well, it will not be very easy to push elections further.

So, it is certainly not a win-win situation for PML-N or former premier Nawaz Sharif. But, PPP leadership is ready to work on it with PML in case all legal hitches are removed and Sharif is allowed to return and contest polls.

The two sides also discussed the post-election scenario in case the two parties and their allies win the majority and reach an understanding over a grand coalition government — however, both agreed it’s premature to discuss the future prime minister.

They, however, informally did discuss possible candidates. Sources said PPP leadership did ask Nawaz Sharif whether he would run for the premiership for the fourth time — subject to clearance from the court. Zardari was also asked the same question and it appears both want ‘their candidate’ for the top slot. The names of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz were not discussed at this stage.

The PML-N leadership is confident that Nawaz Sharif’s name would be cleared and he would contest the next general elections. The legal battle is not over yet. Sharif was disqualified for life in 2017 by the Supreme Court in the Panama case, which PML-N termed as a pre-conceived idea of the then establishment and superior judiciary. Thus, he could not contest the 2018 elections and his arch-political rival Imran Khan became the prime minister. Thus, it is natural that Sharif wants to return to power to prove his ouster in 2017 was wrong and illegal.

A million-dollar question for the parties and leadership is the future and fate of arguably still the most popular leader of Pakistan, the Chairman of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Legally and constitutionally both are in the race at the moment till Imran Khan is convicted and disqualified by the court.

PTI is certainly passing through one of its most difficult periods particularly after the May 9 protest and attack on some of the most sensitive military as well as top intelligence agency buildings, GHQ, Corps Commander House in Lahore and as DG, ISPR said 200 other such places. Some of the party workers and activists besides local leadership are likely to face trial in the military courts. It has not been decided yet whether the party chairman would also be indicted in this case and face the trial in military courts or not.

Both Sharifs and Zardari are on the same page as far as their common political rivalry with Imran Khan and PTI is concerned and would certainly want to see Khan ‘disqualified’ and defend it by citing their own examples.

The two sides have a history of rivalry and distrust but in the last 14 months since they jointly ousted their common rival Imran Khan in April, last year through a vote of no confidence their confidence level has increased. While many within PPP and PML-N see their young leadership, Bilawal and Maryam as future premiers, both elders Zardari and Nawaz are not out of the race as well.

PPP parted ways with Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in December 2020 over differences over whether they should resign before the long march to Islamabad or wait till they reached the federal capital. The PPP never returned to PDM, nor did the latter try to bring back the mainstream party in its fold.

Many political pundits believe that the ‘election’ is the ultimate test of the popularity of any leader and the party. Today, PTI is raising questions about the impartiality of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), in 2018, PML-N had similar complaints.

Can ECP prove them wrong by not only ensuring free and fair polls but also by holding them on time? This key question will only be answered once assemblies are dissolved on August 11th. Also, remember 2023, is also the 50th year of the Golden Jubilee year of the 1973 Constitution.

The writer is a columnist and analyst for GEO, Jang, and The News. Twitter:@MazharAbbasGEO