WITH all the rumours flying around about deferred polls, extended caretaker set-ups and other plans to delay the transition to the next elected government, the chief election commissioner’s remarks on Wednesday — in which he said elections would be held on time — were much needed. Given the way things work here, the fact that he met the army chief before these remarks gave them some weight, especially in the face of speculation about establishment backing for those supporting a ‘new order’. Now the government needs to announce a date for elections and make public its talks with the opposition about selecting a leader of the caretaker government.
In another move that makes eminent sense, the CEC also stated that he wasn’t in favour of delimitation in Karachi, a signal to the Supreme Court to reconsider its order. As this paper has argued before, delimitation at this point, without a census and in a city as politically fraught as Karachi, has the potential to make politics even more contentious, lead to violence and provide an excuse to delay polls. And there is no reason to believe that a new delimitation will not be unacceptable to one party or another and stir up fresh controversies. Given that the exercise is also unlikely to significantly change the final outcome of polls in Karachi, the risk of it is simply not worth the payoff so close to elections. It would be wise for the Supreme Court to postpone the delimitation demand till after elections, and the MQM’s review petition has provided one avenue through which to do so. What is important, though, is for the new government to hold the much-delayed census immediately after the polls and follow that up with a nationwide delimitation exercise.
The more immediate steps to focus on, especially now that the army has assured the CEC it will provide security, is for the government to announce an election date and the Election Commission of Pakistan to continue with the voter verification project. Simply because some voters haven’t been verified at their home addresses doesn’t mean they can be disenfranchised, so the project of tracking them down should continue till as late as possible. But this will need to be a joint effort of political parties, voters and the ECP, which needs to launch a more effective public information campaign about verification and conduct a door-to-door exercise without political interference or intimidation. The ECP finally has an opportunity to demonstrate that Pakistan can in fact engineer a smooth democratic transition, and that should be the guiding principle for any step the commission takes.