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Pakistan army's designs to stall the 2018 general elections
Next general elections in Pakistan for National Assembly (NA) and provincial assembles viz. Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are due to be held on July 15, 2018.

The 372-member National Assembly (NA) of Pakistan is elected through three methods. While 272 members are elected by direct voting in single-member constituencies; 60 seats are reserved for females and 10 for ethnic and religious minority groups, who are elected through proportional representation system.

The current government will conclude its five-year term on May 31, 2018 and the next general elections would be held under the caretaker Prime Minister whose prime responsibility would be to ensure that the elections are held in a transparent manner. As per the Constitution of Pakistan, the caretaker Prime Minister is appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the opposition leader of the National Assembly.

However, some doubtful assertions by Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court Saqib Nisar and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa made in March 2018, hinted at a possible delay in holding the general elections as per schedule in July 2018, as the issue of delimitation of constituencies post the 2017 national census was yet to be resolved by the political parties.

While Chief Justice Saqib Nisar hoped for a timely resolution of the issue, General Bajwa assured of holding free and fair elections also declaring that "a level playing field" would be provided to all the political parties.

Significantly, the constitutional amendment allowing fresh delimitation of national and provincial assembly constituencies based on the provisional data of the 2017 census of Pakistan, which had concluded on 25 May 2017, has been pending in the National Assembly since November 2, 2017. Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would carry out the exercise of making fresh delimitation of constituencies and preparing new electoral rolls once National Assembly passes the required legislation.

In the meanwhile, almost all political parties have agreed that the upcoming general elections should not be delayed at any cost and fresh delimitation of constituencies should be allowed on the basis of the provisional data of the census held in 2017.

Although the number of seats in the National Assembly (NA) would remain at 272 after fresh delimitation but it would affect Punjab province, which is dominated by the ruling PML-N as it could lose up to nine seats in the NA, whereas Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will get five new seats, Balochistan three and the Islamabad Capital Territory will receive an additional seat. However, The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) will retain its 12 seats in the assembly.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) recently dismissed (May 9, 2018, Islamabad) some media reports that it was contemplating to hold the next general elections on July 25 or 26, 2018. ECP in its statement added that neither it has fixed a date for the upcoming polls nor was any particular date being considered.

However, since March 2018, the ECP has already started preparations for the next general elections including the training of more than 0.9 million polling staff. ECP has also decided to use watermarked ballot papers to protect the integrity of the elections, and the special paper required for the purpose is being imported from France and England at a cost of around Rs (Pak) 1 billion. In the meanwhile, ECP had also banned (April 11, 2018) all new recruitments and new developmental programmers by the federal and provincial governments to ensure free and fair elections.

Notably, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, had recently rejected (May 4 and 13,2018, Islamabad and Lahore) the possibility of any delay in holding the next general elections in the country and declared that the elections would be held within 60 days after the completion of current assemblies' constitutional term and expressed that the next general elections would be transparent. Meanwhile, Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly Khursheed Shah (May 8, 2018, Swat) opined that a delay in general polls was not desirable.

But despite Prime Minister Abbasi's assurances of holding the general elections as per schedule, his own party PML-N and some other major opposition parties such as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) have expressed their apprehensions over Prime Minister Abbasi's assurances. While Federal Minister of state for interior Talal Chaudhry said (May 7, 2018, Islamabad) that the attack on Interior Minister Asan Iqbal was a move aimed at postponing the general elections, PPP's Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira alleged that the government intended to delay the general elections but his party would not allow it. He also alleged that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan was making unrealistic political demands, which could put the entire process of holding the elections in jeopardy. The ANP has also vowed to resist any delay in holding general elections in the country.

Notably, a general perception prevailing amongst the ruling PML-N cadres and some leading opposition parties is that the Pakistan army has finally ditched the ruling PML-N and Nawaz Sharif due to the latter's refusal to accept the army's writ on national and international issues. As an alternative, the Pakistan army has been contemplating to install Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan as the country's next Prime Minister and might force the government and the ECP to postponement of the general elections for a few months citing several issues, including the security scenario after the attack on the Interior Minister; political parties' failure to pass the bill allowing delimitation of constituencies as well as demanding that the delimitation of constituencies should be allowed only after the final results of 2018 census are declared. Hence it is being feared in the political circles of Pakistan that Pakistan army wants to postpone the general elections with the aim of helping Imran Khan and his party along with other pro-army and Islamist parties. However, a delay in holding general elections might not help Nawaz Sharif's PML-N which has been advocating for timely elections so that it can garner peoples' support by projecting itself as a victim of the military establishment.

The Pakistan army has successfully been making efforts to create dissensions and revolt in the ruling PML-N to favour Imran Khan and his party. Fifteen former members of the National Assembly belonging to the ruling PML-N led by former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar left PML-N (May 9, 2018) and joined Imran Khan's PTI. A group of PML-N defectors led by Bakhtiar had formed Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz (JPSM) and reached an agreement with Imran Khan for joint struggle aimed at creation of South Punjab as a new province of Pakistan. It has been alleged that the Pakistan army could stage a defection in PML-N in southern Punjab with the help of Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairperson of the PPP.

In the meanwhile, Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Nawaz Sharif has alleged that defection in PML-N in southern Punjab was the handiwork of the army. Notably, southern Punjab is an important constituency of the ruling PML-N as this area constitutes 50 seats of the National Assembly.

Nurturing of Imran Khan by the Pakistan army to counter Nawaz Sharif's PML-N and successfully staging revolts in PML-N's southern Punjab areas are critical political developments in Pakistan which are bound to influence the next general elections and could ensure that Imran Khan is at the helm of national affairs.

Pakistan army is also busy in bringing Imran Khan's PTI and Asif Zardari's PPP closer to each other to dent the vote bank of PML-N not only in Punjab province but in Sindh also.

It was Imran Khan, who had earlier alleged vehemently that the 2013 general elections were rigged by the then army chief Ashfaq Kayani in favour of Nawaz Sharif and now he aspires to become Prime Minister with the active support of the same Pakistan army. The Pakistan army is fully prepared to put irreparable dent into the ruling PML-N's nationwide popularity. To achieve nefarious political goals, the country's top army brass may delay the next general elections for a few months on some pretext or other.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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Meenakshi Krishnan
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Surinder Lamba
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