The Delimitation of Pakistan’s Democracy

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The Delimitation of Pakistan’s Democracy

Whether the delay in elections, and the tarnished delimitation process, abets any party in the February polls remains to be seen.

The Delimitation of Pakistan’s Democracy

On December 23, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) decided that it would address all formal complaints regarding the constituency delimitation after the general elections scheduled for February 8. The ECP’s decision comes after the Supreme Court ruled the previous week that holding timely elections needed to “be given primacy” to ensure “continuity of democratic governance” leaving the dispute of delimitations for later. The contention is rooted in the ECP’s November 30 notification, which announced the delimitation of constituencies that would make up the 266 general seats in the National Assembly and 593 general seats for the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan. The ECP had already “disposed” disputes in 88 districts, and settled 1,324 objections in the lead-up to its final delimitation notification last month.

Many of the objections raised by candidates in the delimitation process criticize the breaching of the population allocation mechanism. According to the ECP regulations, the maximum allowed variation in populations in relation to the average voter per seat in an assembly is 10 percent, a margin exceeded in over one-fifth of the constituencies, as per the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN). However, the final constituency boundaries unveiled sizeable divergence from the 10 percent rule with the largest constituencies in an assembly seen to be almost twice the size of the smallest; for example, with an almost three-time disparity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between NA-39 Bannu and NA-1 Chitral.

An ECP official privy to the delimitation process told The Diplomat that the entire exercise was carried out as per regulations, and that the issue has been politicized by various parties “as is customary.” 

“As per the Elections Act, we have to keep the provincial and district integrity in mind. There are geographical considerations as well,” the official said.

Even so, while variation in the populations of constituencies is one criticism, the more prevalent contention hinges around the merging, or separation, of areas that benefit one candidate over others. “We cannot draw delimitation lines running in the middle of populations. A constituency needs to reflect a unit – all the hue and cry is mere electoral excuses,” the ECP official added.

Various parties claim that constituencies have been delimited to benefit the party that many claim is now being backed by the all-powerful military establishment: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“The PML-N has actively conspired to alter constituencies to play to its strength,” said Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) Sher Khan, a candidate from Chakesar town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Tehsils in Shangla district have been turned upside down to benefit the PML-N,” he added, referring to administrative subdivisions.

Even so, the PML-N’s traditional stronghold remains Punjab, where its opponents argue that the party has unleashed its machinations to skew election results in its favor.

“In Kasur, one National Assembly constituency has four Punjab Assembly constituencies. This is unjust and solely designed to benefit the PML-N,” said Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Punjab leader Chaudhary Manzoor.

The merging of different areas impacts political families, which enjoy clout in certain areas that may have fallen into other parts following the delimitation. In other instances, a consolidated stronghold of a candidate might have been divided into different constituencies, splitting the vote banks. But while opponents insist that such moves are being orchestrated to benefit the PML-N, the party claims to be the victim in other parts of the country.

“Larkana, Naushahro Feroze and other constituencies have been broken on demand. There’s been wrong delimitation in the province,” said PML-N Sindh President Bashir Memon.

Like the PML-N, its allied Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) claims that the PPP has used its own influences to rig constituencies in Sindh, with the MQM-P specifically mentioning Hyderabad, the second largest city in the province after Karachi.

Even so, much of the mudslinging over delimitations is rooted in the limits of Pakistan’s democracy, which continues to be dictated by the military establishment, in tandem with all state pillars, with allowance for certain parties to exercise their own undemocratic clout in certain regions of influence. 

Former ECP Secretary Kanwar Dilshad concedes that much of the ongoing squabbling could have been avoided had the upcoming election been conducted based on the previous population census, and not as per the one carried out this year.

“The outgoing government took their time carrying out the population census and then issued a notification all of a sudden, after which the Election Commission was bound to carry out new delimitation as per the new census,” he told The Diplomat. 

“Without the notification, we would have had the election on October 8, and the delimitation process would not have been rushed. It is a process that needs at least a year, and the lack of time may have led to some discrepancies,” Dilshad added.

Days before the PML-N-led government was supposed to make way for the caretaker setup, the Council of Common Interests approved the digital census on August 5. With the assemblies dissolved on August 9, the constitutionally mandated 90-day period to conduct the next elections was forestalled by the clause mandating that the polls be held as per the “last preceding census.”

“The whole point of approving the census at the time was to delay the elections,” said former Punjab Caretaker Chief Minister, and political scientist, Hasan Askari Rizvi, while talking to The Diplomat. 

Much of this exercise was carried out by the outgoing regime that featured both the PML-N and PPP in a broad coalition, and was intended to buy time in order to counter the surging popularity of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). Since Khan’s ouster as the prime minister in a no-confidence motion in April 2022, a result of his fallout with the military leadership, the PTI has emerged as the resounding favorite to win a transparent election, whenever that might be held. 

The first half of 2023 was marred by an electoral limbo centered around the logistics of simultaneously holding the national and the provincial elections, the latter theoretically mandated for May this year. However, the violent May 9 protests in the aftermath of Khan’s arrest brought the military establishment to the fore, with a relentless crackdown on PTI leaders and workers since. In August, Khan was sentenced to three years in prison over corruption charges in a case related to the selling of state gifts during his time as the prime minister. Since then, PML-N supremo and three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan from exile in the U.K. The graft cases against him have been overturned. Sharif, along with 28,625 others nationwide, has filed his nomination papers for the upcoming elections. 

Meanwhile, on December 23, the ECP stripped the PTI of its electoral symbol of a bat, underlining that the candidates affiliated with the already depleted party will have to contest the polls independently if the verdict isn’t overturned. While the Peshawar High Court overturned the ECP ruling on December 26, a renewed effort to outlaw the now iconic bat symbol is likely before the January 13 cutoff date for the allocation of electoral symbols. 

“If these [anti-PTI] trends during the nomination filing processes continue there cannot be free and fair elections. In Punjab, the other major party is the PML-N, which will benefit from this,” added Hasan Rizvi.

Whether the delay in elections, and the tarnished delimitation process, abets any party in the February polls remains to be seen, however, it is obvious that the entire state machinery orchestrated by the military leadership has been tasked with sidelining Imran Khan and the PTI. 

Even so, there is also sufficient evidence through independent surveys, social media, and personal testimonies that where physical delimitation of constituencies might tilt local contests one way or the other, the nationwide support for the PTI has grown beyond electoral demarcations – with or without the party’s iconic symbol and electoral participation of its incarcerated chief.