Despite Supreme Court orders directing the federal government to facilitate the conduct of elections in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the interior and finance ministries on Thursday informed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that it will be “difficult” to provide necessary funds and security amidst an ongoing economic crunch and persistent terror threats.
In a statement issued after a meeting between top officials of the ministries and the ECP—chaired by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja—the electoral body said it had summoned the federal interior and finance secretaries to ensure the provision of funds and security for elections. It said the ECP had informed Finance Secretary Hamed Yaqoob Sheikh that it required at least Rs. 65 billion for general elections nationwide, of which Rs. 20 billion were urgently needed for polls in Punjab and KP. Of this sum, the ECP said, it had thus far received only Rs. 5 billion and would need an additional Rs. 15 billion within this fiscal year.
According to the statement, the finance secretary gave the ECP a detailed briefing on the country’s economic situation, adding that in light of this crisis, it was difficult for the Finance Division to provide these funds. However, it added, the secretary had informed the ECP that he would consult with the federal government before giving any conclusive response. Local media has reported that in his briefing, the secretary noted that Pakistan was in the midst of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program that had strict targets for maintaining fiscal discipline and fighting deficits that left little room for unanticipated expenditures.
The ECP secretary, meanwhile, informed the meeting that—apart from local police—the electoral body would need an additional 297,000 personnel for polls in Punjab, and 56,000 for KP. In this regard, the ECP urged Interior Secretary Yousaf Naseem Khokhar to contact the Army, Rangers and other law-enforcement agencies to arrange the necessary deployment, adding that he should update the electoral body with their response. The ECP has, as a continuation of working toward elections, also convened a meeting on March 10 (today) with officials of the Intelligence Bureau, Inter-Services Intelligence, and the counter-terrorism departments of both Punjab and KP, read the statement.
It said the ECP would likewise meet with the inspectors general of police and chief secretaries of both Punjab and KP next week, as well as officials of the Ministry of Defense, to finalize preparations for elections in the two provinces. The KP governor has also expressed his desire to hold a meeting with the commission next week to decide the date for provincial elections, it added.
The commission, it was stressed, had pointed out that conducting elections was a constitutional obligation and referred to the Supreme Court’s recent judgement validating this view. It urged both finance and interior secretaries to seek instructions from the government and revert at the earliest.
PTI seeks inroads
Separately, a delegation of PTI leaders led by Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi met the CEC at the ECP Secretariat and conveyed its concern over the “illegal steps” being taken by the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. According to the PTI, the delegation condemned the imposition of Section 144 in Lahore after the announcement of the election schedule and urged the ECP to play its role in ensuring a “level playing field” for polls in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The ECP, per local media, assured the delegation that it would take up the matter of allowing public rallies for elections with the Punjab chief minister. It also assured the PTI that it would take all possible steps to ensure a level-playing field for all candidates. It, similarly, said it would consider a request by the PTI to approach the judiciary for acquiring services of judicial officers to serve as district returning officers and returning officers.
“Today’s meeting was held in a positive atmosphere,” Qureshi told journalists after the meeting. “He [Raja] heard us out with patience. We, also, noted down his points and we will share them with our chairman [Imran Khan],” he said, adding that the PTI was trying to “facilitate” the ECP in conducting “free, fair, and credible elections.” He also made it clear that the party would seek contempt proceedings against the KP government if he did not announce a date for polls in the province in line with instructions of the Supreme Court.