By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD, Jan 2: The Election Commission on Wednesday went along with the executive, disregarding the views of key political parties, to postpone the Jan 8 elections for about seven weeks in a move that could put the electoral process at risk.
Protests from some of the main electoral players meant the decision by a retired and two serving justices forming it could further damage the credibility of an incomplete commission for opting a course seen by opposition parties as an unwarranted violation of the Constitution.
A postponement had seemed imminent after the Dec 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a gun-and-bomb attack immediately after she had addressed an election rally at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh park and indications from the government that the views of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) about any change in the poll schedule would be honored.
While a sympathy wave for it seemed to be hitting the electoral fortunes of the formerly ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the PPP surprised the government and its political foes by deciding to go into the elections immediately without asking for a postponement and prevailing upon the other major opposition party – the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – to reverse a boycott decision it had announced after Ms Bhutto’s assassination.
The Election Commission took six days after the assassination and three days of meetings and consultations with the interim provincial administrations and political parties to decide on an issue that, along with Ms Bhutto’s assassination, had become nerve-raking for the population.
Though only law and order problems, particularly those in Sindh province, were blamed for the postponement, speculation in opposition ranks had been rife about possible instructions from the executive being responsible for the delay in decision-making.
No political party publicly demanded a postponement and all opposition parties taking part in the elections wanted the commission to stick to Jan 8 for the polling.
But an Election Commission notification and Chief Election Commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq, while addressing a news conference after a commission meeting, cited reports of chief secretaries of the provincial governments and provincial election commissioners about as grounds for the postponement and made no mention of the views of political parties, in what appeared to be a total disregard of the political input.
Political sources said the move could further embitter relations of opposition parties with the commission, which they already think lacks independence and had come under their ire for accepting President Pervez Musharraf’s candidature for election for another five-term in October while he was still holding the now given up second office of chief of the army staff and for allegedly not doing enough to address their complaints against what they saw administration’s plans to rig the general elections.
The commission’s decision on Wednesday was a violation of article 224 of the Constitution that makes it mandatory for a general election to the National Assembly or a provincial assembly to held within 60 days after an assembly expires its term.
However, in the event of an assembly being dissolved before completing its tenure, the election must be held within 90 days.
Since the last National Assembly stood dissolved on the completion of its five-year term on Nov 15, the present elections could not be delayed beyond Jan 14.
But the Election Commission notification took refuge for the deviation under the Constitution’s article 254 that protects obligatory actions not done within the required time limit being invalid.
It says: “When any act or thing is required by the Constitution to be done within a particular period and it is not done within that period, the doing of the act or thing shall not be invalid or otherwise ineffective by reason only that it was not done within that period.”
But the commission decision revived the memories of the notorious postponement of elections by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq that he had promised to hold within 90 days after he had seized power in 1977 by toppling Benazir Bhutto’s father, and then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but, not expecting “positive results”, did not hold them until 1985.
The PPP and other opposition parties see the present postponement as a move to spare the PML setback it could receive from a popular backlash of Ms Bhutto’s assassination.
But it remains to be seen whether the seven more weeks allowed for campaigning would make much difference while the focus would continue to remain on the assassination and opposition charges, which the government denies, that the former prime minister was not provided with adequate security.