Opinions divided over authority to set poll date
ISLAMABAD, Feb 24: While the National Assembly has only about three weeks to complete its five-year term, there are questions about who has the last word on setting the election date.
The Constitution is silent on who will determine the exact date of polling for the coming elections; it only sets the deadline of 60 or 90 days. Constitutional experts argue that caretakers, and not the outgoing federal government, will set the poll date.
But according to Law Minister Farooq H. Naek, under section 11 of the Representation of the People Act, 1976, President Asif Ali Zardari has the sole constitutional prerogative to announce the date.
Talking to Dawn, senior constitutional expert and veteran lawmaker S.M. Zafar said the poll date was to be decided by the executive — caretakers — in consultation with the Election Commission of Pakistan and the president being a ceremonial head of state would only make its formal announcement.
Similar views were expressed by the Supreme Court lawyer on constitutional issues, Barrister Zafarullah Khan. He said the basic philosophy behind putting in place a caretaker set-up was to give them the right to hold elections on the best suitable date, of course, within the time limit explained in the Constitution.
According to Article 224 of the Constitution, if the National Assembly or a provincial assembly completes its constitutional term of five years, elections should be held within 60 days. In case of the dissolution of a legislature, deadline to hold elections is 90 days. But the article does not specifically state whether the ECP or the government of the day will determine the election date.
“Yes, the Constitution is silent on the matter. But since holding elections is the basic responsibility of the ECP, its input will be playing a key role in determining the specific date for polls,” S.M. Zafar said.
Moreover, he said, since the ECP required about 45 days for scrutiny of nomination papers, deciding appeals against rejection of papers and issuing a final list of candidates, its role in deciding a final date for elections was more crucial. But he agreed that the Constitution didn’t say much to this effect.
According to Zafarullah Khan, the moment the National Assembly completes its tenure on March 16, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and his cabinet will lose their mandate to take any decision at the government level and, therefore, caretakers in consultation with the ECP will decide the election date.
He said with the passage of the 18th Amendment the president had become a ceremonial head of the state and couldn’t determine the election date on his own.
But Mr Farooq Naek, who is also a lawyer by profession, insisted that the president solely held the right under section 11 of the Representation of People Act 1976 to announce the poll date. He said that since the Constitution was black and white on the deadline within which elections were supposed to be held after the expiry of the current assemblies, the announcement of elections wasn’t be such a big deal.
“The issue at hand for the government is not about the announcement of election date, but the dissolution of national and provincial assemblies on the same day so that elections can be held on one date. The government is in contact with all political parties and trying to reach an agreement on the dissolution of all assemblies on one date,” the law minister said.
The five-year tenure of the National Assembly will end on March 16 and that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly on March 27, Sindh Assembly on April 4 and Punjab and Balochistan assemblies on April 8.
The PPP government wants all provincial assemblies to be dissolved on March 16 for which it needs consent of the chief ministers.
Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has warned that if the PPP government does not listen to the opposition party on the selection of caretaker set-ups at the centre and in the provinces, the PML-N will not dissolve the Punjab Assembly before April 8.
A senior government official said if there was a deadlock between the PPP and the PML-N over the caretaker set-up and dissolution of the assemblies both would lose the moral high ground which otherwise they could claim and suggest an agreed date for elections.
“In case the PPP and the PML-N reach an agreement on the election date, it will be difficult for the caretaker governments as well as the ECP to oppose it,” the official said.