Citing security and financial reasons, Pakistan’s defence authorities and election officials have urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its order to hold elections in the politically crucial Punjab province on May 14.
A three-member panel of the court led by Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on April 4 in its judgment ruled that elections should be held in the largest province on time and asked the government to provide ₹21 billion (Pakistani Rs.) to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
The government has refused to accept the ruling citing security and financial reasons as the country was facing a resurgence in militancy and a looming threat of default due to an economic meltdown.
As the last deadline to release funds expired on April 17, the judges were briefed by the intelligence chiefs while the ECP furnished its report on the non-availability of funds.
The Dawn newspaper reported that the Defence Ministry on Tuesday requested the Supreme Court to recall its April 4 order in which they fixed May 14 as the election date for the Punjab Assembly.
The request was made through an application along with a report, laid before the Supreme Court in compliance with its directives to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and other departments to furnish reports after releasing Rs. 21 billion to the ECP for holding elections.
Holding provincial elections has taken centre stage in Pakistani politics as former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been pushing for snap elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
It is likely that the three-member Bench would take up these reports in chambers on Wednesday and the matter is likely to be taken up in the open court for a hearing on Wednesday or Thursday.
The Defence Ministry, in its application, requested the apex court to issue directives that general elections to the national and all provincial assemblies be held simultaneously upon completion of the terms of national as well as Sindh and Balochistan Assemblies.
The report contained, for the most part, the same contentions which the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Director General of military operations and the Defence Secretary presented to the Chief Justice and two other judges during a nearly three-hour in-chamber briefing on Monday, as well as the in-camera briefing earlier given to parliament.
The report also highlighted the need of holding the elections on the same day in view of the heightened security situation in the country, saying that the armed forces would be able to carry out election duties by early October.
“Due to the prevalent security situation and counter-terrorism operations being carried out in KP (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan, as well as the intelligence-based operations in Punjab and Sindh, the armed forces, Rangers, Frontier Constabulary and other forces, are not logistically available to be repositioned and re-posted for providing election security, twice in a span of six months,” the report said.
“Significant time is required to prepare the members of the armed forces for the election duty, given much of the force has been actively engaged in operations for a considerable period of time,” the application said, adding the security situation in Punjab and Sindh has been stable in the light of the efforts of the ongoing operations in KP and Balochistan, respectively.
Therefore, any diversion of troops from KP and Balochistan will result in directly affecting the security situation in Punjab and Sindh, the Dawn reported citing the application submitted by the Defence Ministry.
Separately, the Express Tribune newspaper reported that the ECP on Tuesday expressed serious reservations over the holding of Punjab Assembly elections on May 14, warning that “anarchy and chaos” can break out in the country if its itinerary for polls is not followed.
In its report submitted to the Supreme Court in the same case, the electoral body said it will not be possible for the ECP to ensure an “honest, just, fair and peaceful election to the Provincial Assembly of Punjab” in view of the charged political environment and reports by relevant stakeholders including security agencies and the provincial government.
Moreover, if the police are not supplemented by the Army and other law enforcing agencies in a static mode, the security of life and property of voters, electoral staff and the public at large will be at risk, it added.
It further said that the ECP has proposed the date of October 8, 2023, as the poll date mainly on account of the intelligence-based operations (IBOs) being conducted in the Kacha areas bordering Sindh and Punjab and these IBOs have been supported by the Pakistan Army, the Punjab Rangers and Sindh Rangers.
The ECP said IBOs will require 4-5 months at least to complete and will hopefully ensure that the TTP and other terrorist organisations are effectively neutered.
In November last year, the TTP called off an indefinite ceasefire agreed with the Pakistan government in June 2022 and ordered its militants to carry out attacks on the security forces.
The commission is mindful, as stated, that there can be no compromise on the security and safety of the voters, polling staff and the public at large, the Express Tribune reported on the basis of the ECP report.
The TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban, was set up as an umbrella group of several militant outfits in 2007. Its main aim is to impose its strict brand of Islam across Pakistan.
The group has been blamed for several deadly attacks across Pakistan, including an attack on army headquarters in 2009, assaults on military bases and the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
The current term of the National Assembly will complete its five-year term in August this year. According to the Constitution, elections shall be held within 90 days after the dissolution of the lower house. This means that the election must be held by mid-October. The last general election was held in July 2018.
Ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's PTI party dissolved the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies on January 14 and 18, respectively, in a bid to force the ruling coalition to hold early general elections.