A question of demographics

The passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment by the Senate paved the way for the coming elections to be held for constituencies delimited according to the Census held this year. The passage reflected the sort of posturing typical of elected politicians, as well as the fact that it was so basic to the very nature of democracy, and of the political process itself.

Only those who have been candidates for election to a legislature would understand why the legislators, both government and opposition, behaved as if they were having all their teeth removed without anesthesia. Quite frankly, politics is an uncertain business, and a fresh delimitation faces the legislator with a new challenge, when an election is considered a challenge. The makers of the Constitution had tied delimitations to census results, and this is the reason for the necessity of holding censuses. There are strong economic arguments for holding censuses, and it is no coincidence that the body responsible for doing so, the Federal Bureau of Statistics, is attached to the Finance Ministry. In a nutshell, it is impossible to make any plans without some idea of who is being planned for. However, politicians would blithely ignore this, had it not been for the constitutional requirement.

That requirement prescribes that the delimitations will be carried out by the Election Commission of Pakistan. However, the delimitations cannot be carried out, until the 24th Amendment, on preliminary census results, but on the final ones. The results have been delayed to accommodate the MQM demand for an audit of one percent of the results. Under the new bill, the ECP will carry out fresh delimitations under it by May 2018.

If there is an earlier general election, as there can be, it will be held according to the old delimitations, as the ECP will say the fresh delimitations can only be carried out according to the legislated schedule, which prescribes a certain time period for each step. If there is no earlier dissolution, the Constitution provides for the lapsing of the National Assembly (and the four provincial assemblies) five years from the date of the first meeting, and the holding of a general election in 60 days from that date. Dissolution compels the ECP to hold a general election in 90 days. The difference adds to the impulse to let the National Assembly go to term.

As the current Assembly first met on 1 July 2013, it will stand dissolved on 1 July 2018. The ECP will hold elections so that a new House will be elected to meet on October 1. Of course, if there is an earlier dissolution by the Prime Minister, he will specify the date on which the next election is to be held, which must allow for the schedule of at least 45 days to be followed, from the availability of nomination forms, to the holding of polling.

There was also the possibility that the elections would be delayed, so that they would be held according to the new Census. This was to have led to the extension in the tenure of the caretaker government, with the expiry of the term of the National Assembly. No one seems to have contemplated the possibility of the continuation of the present government. Indeed, Pakistan is exceptional in having a caretaker Cabinet appointed for the intervening period between the dissolution, whether on end of tenure or prematurely upon the PM’s advice. Usually, the outgoing government continues in a caretaker capacity. The problem with a caretaker solution is the temptation to use it to assemble a ‘Cabinet of All the Talents’ to fix a country’s problems.

This is what was done in Bangladesh in 2006, and the resulting government held office until 2008. It was backed by the Army, and the Bangladeshi army chief not only had his rank raised to that of a full general, but also had his term extended by a year. Bangladeshi politics remained unreformed, and Hasina Wazed and Khalida Zia, complete with their parties, returned to fight it out. The PML(N) feels that this is what is happening, with the first step being the ousting of Mian Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister. The next step would be either failure to hold elections on time, or to hold elections on old delimitations.

One game-changer has been the making public of the fact that using the census would mean reducing the Punjab’s share by nine seats, and increasing those of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by five, Baluchistan by three and Islamabad by one. Even before the results were ‘officially published’ (in the words of the Constitution), it had become impossible to use the existing delimitations. In fact, the reason why there is to be an audit is because of the ire of the MQM in particular, and of Sindh in general, at not gaining extra seats. Apart from the electoral implications are the financial, as the federal divisible pool’s provincial share is to be distributed among the provinces according to their population as reflected in the last census. Thus the failure of Sindh to gain any more seats did not only cost the parties more seats to contest, but money for the governments formed after the election.

The implications of the changed number of seats for the provinces are that the boundaries of all seats have to be redrawn. There may be further changes made in the allocation of seats to districts. It is thus possible for a member to see his or her seat disappear, and the sitting member will have a choice of standing down, or contesting a constituency some of which was part of someone else’s.

Then there is the issue of the provincial assemblies. There too, there has to be a re-demarcation between districts. The total number of seats will not change, but the seats well may, depending on whether or not the allocation made to the district changes. Thus Sindh, while not gaining any seats in the post-census reallocation, may still have to undergo an extensive demarcation exercise.

The entire experience is not so much about politics as much as demography. The census reflects changes in demography, not just the growth in population, but where the population has gone. At the same time, politicians were bound to compete for the implications, and with perhaps scant regard for the truth, bound to compete for as great a share of resources as could be obtained. It is worth noting that though the Punjab is apparently the big loser; no voice has been heard from it. Perhaps even its opposition politicians realise that there is no gainsaying numbers. Also, there has been enough said about Punjab being the big brother to drown out chauvinistic voices. It should be noted that while Punjab’s majority has been reduced, it is still possible for a party to rule the whole country by winning only in Punjab.


n            The writer is a veteran journalist and

founding member as well as executive

editor of The Nation.

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