A Business Recorder exclusive revealed that the government is considering introducing a constitutional amendment, on the advice of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, to allow the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to engage in the delimitation exercise on the basis of provisional census 2017 results which have already been released. This was proposed after the Chief Census Commissioner, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, informed the Council of Common Interest (CCI) that the census 2017 final results would not be available before April 2018.

The delimitation exercise is mandatory once the census has been officially published prior to the holding of general elections - as per Article 51 (5) of the constitution - and the ECP is constrained from undertaking this exercise on provisional results - section 17(2) of the Elections Act 2017 passed by the National Assembly on 22nd August 2017. This had prompted ECP Secretary Babar Yaqoob Fateh Mohammad to write to Law Secretary Karamat Hussain Niazi and bring it to his notice that the final census results would need to be available to the ECP in time (or three months prior to the holding of the general elections) to determine the seats in the National Assembly that should be allocated to each province (Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Islamabad) on the basis of the last preceding census officially published. Thus if the final census results are available to the ECP in April next year then the 2018 elections cannot be held prior to July 2018 which is past the due date.

The provisional census 2017 results have however generated a considerable controversy. Sindh is in the forefront challenging the provisional data compiled by the PBS. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has stated that the PPP is taking all other parties on board (various factions of MQM as well as PSP have also expressed extreme reservations on the census data for Karachi and Hyderabad) to develop a joint strategy to challenge the census data and maintained that “it is quite surprising that in the initial reports of census the population of the metropolis [Karachi] during the last 18 years has increased from over 10 million to just 14 million”. Balochistan government has also expressed reservations on the large number of Afghans living in the province fearing that the Baloch may become a minority group in Balochistan and urged the government not to include Afghans in the census even though given the provisional census results indicate that the number of the provincial seats in the National Assembly would rise as a consequence.

The rate of growth of the population of Punjab has declined and a delimitation exercise would reduce the province’s seats in the assembly while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would gain seats as would Sindh.

It is relevant to note that prior to the census exercise, MQM and Balochistan had expressed reservations while Sindh government had requested that raw data be shared with the provinces to enable them to reaffirm the findings. That has not been done and Kamran Michael, the Statistics Minister, recently stated that the census data is accurate and those who have reservations should take up the matter in the CCI or parliament. It is unfortunate that such a line has been taken by the government given that in the CCI the federal government’s opinion would prevail (as it is in the majority and the constitution allows the majority opinion to prevail) as it would in National Assembly where the PML-N also has a majority. This approach does not bode well for harmonious relations within the federation and one would hope that a process that takes everyone on board be the preferred way forward.