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Pakistan: PML N Shaping National and Punjab Assembly Elections

The stakes are high for the ruling party in Pakistan – Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) – which leads the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government. PML N’s political bastion in Punjab has seen a shift in favour of rival and deposed Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI).

While Imran Khan is down but he is not out and despite the numerous cases piled up against him possibly resulting in his disqualification from the next polls as well as a ban on his party which has already become a rump, the PML N does not appear to be confident of a majority in Punjab in the provincial as well as the National Assembly. These two are in fact coterminous – one who wins in Punjab can gain the advantage in the National Assembly as well.

An important factor is the economy. Even as the PML N acceded to the terms and conditions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a Stand Bye Arrangement (SBA), the conditions are tough and has led to continued inflation. For a clear chance of a win in the polls, the tide of the people has to turn in PML N’s favour for which the Party believes that time is of the essence.

According to Article 224 of the Pakistan Constitution, “A general election to the National Assembly or a provincial assembly shall be held within a period of sixty days immediately following the day on which the term of the assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been sooner dissolved”. As per Article 224(2) in case of early dissolution, the Election Commission of Pakistan is bound to hold the general elections within a period of ninety days.

Election Commission of Pakistan's [ECP] Special Secretary Zafar Iqbal has said that if the National Assembly is dissolved after completing its tenure, the ECP will hold the polls before October 11. This is obvious as the 60-day period kicks in if the National Assembly, Baloch and Sindh Assemblies are dissolved on that date. However, in case these are dissolved even a day prior, the ECP has 90 days to hold the polls. The PML N is now expected to opt for the 90 days option [and beyond].

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said the assemblies could be dissolved earlier than the scheduled date of August 13 to “facilitate” the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). If the assemblies get dissolved on August 11 instead of August 13, the ECP will get more time — 90 days — to hold elections, while speaking on Geo News programme ‘Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Sath’ in reply to a question about the ruling party looking to delay elections till November.

The 90 days or more window is also required to disqualify Mr Imran Khan from participating, possibly send into jail and exile and laying a ban on the party. The Supreme Court may be a hindrance at present till Chief Justice Umar Atta Bandial is in chair who seems to have a soft corner for the deposed PTI leader apart from the matter of jurisprudence.

PTI chief Imran Khan has vowed that he will create a new political party to contest the upcoming general elections and win them in the event of a possible ban on his current party, Nikkei Asia reported. Questioned about the impact of a possible ban on his electoral future by Nikkei Asia, Imran told the outlet: “If they remove the party then we will form a party with a new name and still win the elections.”

The return of Mr Nawaz Sharif, PML N Supremo to the country from a virtual exile in London is also essential and the Party believes that this is a magic wand that will swing the mood of the people, which is a contentious assumption. For paving the way for return of Mr Sharif, again the role of the Supreme Court is important clearing him of charges of not being, “sadiq and ameen,” in a judgement by the SC headed by a previous Chief Justice.

PML N assumption is that under Bandial, Nawaz is not likely to get justice thus may wait for his retirement on September 16. Justice Qazi Faez Isa who succeeds Bandial is seen to be favourably disposed towards the Sharifs. So much for independence of Pakistan’s judiciary.

The Pakistan Army which was an important factor in success of Mr Imran Khan and the PTI in 2018 is disinclined to see his return and wants him behind bars with a deep antipathy between Khan and Army Chief General Asim Nasir. The PML N under Shahbaz Sharif has placated the Army sufficiently for it to be in favour of the party despite the past experience of derision by Mr Nawaz Sharif.

The other key factor in shaping the elections is the formation of the Caretaker Government. In normal course this is seen as a technocratic formulation to attend to day-to-day issues of governance and assist the ECP in holding the polls. Thus, it is only a temporary arrangement but now the Sharifs want a quasi-permanent stature for the caretaker government with reports that Finance Minister, Ishaq Dar a favourite to lead the same. Dar is one of the closest to Mr Nawaz Sharif having familial relationship with the PML N Supremo.

In line with this intent, a joint session of the Parliament passed amendments to the Election Act 2017, granting the caretaker government powers to take actions or decisions regarding existing bilateral or multilateral agreements and projects. The Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2023, was presented by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi.

“The interim setup will not be confined to day-to-day affairs of the government till elections are held. An amendment is being brought (to the Constitution) to empower the caretaker setup to take important decisions like an elected government does,” PML-N supreme leader’s spokesperson Muhammad Zubair told Dawn.

From a macro governance perspective with the arrangements of the SBA with IMF at a critical stage such measures make sense, but the political consequences of this amendment and the delay in elections to the Punjab and KP Assemblies beyond 90 days is seen as deleterious. Thus, what emerges from the shenanigans remains to be seen?

Wheels also seem to be turning for the arrest of Mr Imran Khan with an alleged confession by one of his closest aides, Mr Azam Khan, the principal secretary to Imran, the government is planning to prosecute former prime minister Imran Khan under two separate sections of the Official Secrets Act for “retaining” the confidential cipher in a purported bid to stall his ouster from power.

One of the senior-most officers of the state, Azam Khan remained missing for over a month after he disappeared soon after leaving his house in Islamabad for an appointment on June 15. Mr Khan is also under charge for numerous cases such as defamation of ECP, keeping state gifts and selling them – Tosha Khana case amongst others.

There are also technicalities with Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah saying that the government had decided not to notify the latest census and that upcoming elections would be held on the basis of the 2017 census. “The CCI (Council of Common Interests) has to complete its term. If this [new] census is not notified by then, the elections will be [held] on the basis of the previous census and delimitation. And the government has decided it will not notify this [new census] and when the assemblies will dissolve after completing their terms, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will be bound to conduct elections on the basis of the previous census,” he said while speaking on Geo News show ‘Naya Pakistan’.

However Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has indicated that the elections will be held as per 2023 census as opposed to the older 2017 one possibly to meet the demands of allies, especially the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) which has a strong base in Karachi, pakistan’s commercial capital where there is an increase to around 30 million from 14.9 million in the 2017 census. This will imply more delays as the ECP needs at least four months to complete the delimitation process.

Thus, there are many variables before general elections are held in Pakistan as the ruling coalition and particularly the PML N seeks to shape success and control of the government for another five years. With Army in its favour as well as the Supreme Court after the retirement of Chief Justice Umar Atta Bandial, the plan may well succeed, but at the cost of another round of misgovernance and corruption in Pakistan.

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