While former prime minister Imran Khan continues demanding early elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has ruled out the possibility, saying it will not be in a position to conduct general elections before May 2023. While the PTI and its allies accuse election officials — many of whom had been handpicked by none other than Imran himself — of being unfair to the former ruling coalition, the ECP has shot back by noting that the PTI government’s slow pace of work is largely responsible for the fact that it can’t hold elections anytime soon.
In May 2020, the chief election commissioner had formally asked Imran and other PTI-led government bodies to expedite notification of the official 2017 census results so that new delimitation could begin. Instead, after several delays, the PTI government ordered a new “digital” census in April 2021. Legally, the ECP is bound to rely on the most recent census, meaning it must wait for these new results. It is also worth noting that the fresh census was necessitated by controversy over the findings of the 2017 edition, which appeared to heavily undercount the population of Karachi in particular.
There are political considerations as well. Imran strongly believes that his party and his foreign conspiracy narrative have enough public support to bring him back to power if snap elections are held. On the other hand, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his coalition partners want to burnish their credentials to ensure gains over their performances in the 2018 elections.
Imran can rely on protests and the threat of mass resignations — both of which his party has mastered during their years in the opposition — to build support, energise the base and destablise the fragile governments in Islamabad and Lahore. Meanwhile, Shehbaz and his allies have the uphill task of holding together the coalition while doing enough good to appeal to neutral and disenchanted PTI voters.
But even if elections stay on schedule for next summer, it would not necessarily be a bad thing for the PTI. Elections all over the world have shown that voters have notoriously short memories, and the farther we get from April 2022, the more likely it will become that — barring a miraculous economic turnaround — the PTI will be able to blame Shehbaz for the economic upheaval that began on Imran’s watch.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2022.