Council Of Common Interest Approves Digital Census

Council Of Common Interest Approves Digital Census
A key meeting of the Council of Common Interests on Saturday unanimously decided to approve the digital census conducted earlier this year. This now makes it mandatory for the next general elections to be held per the new enumeration.

Meanwhile, legal experts are split on whether approval granted to the population census by unelected, caretaker chief ministers carries the same weight as elected chief ministers do.

An extensive meeting was held in Islamabad on Saturday with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the chair. The meeting was attended, among others, by the chief ministers of the four provinces.

The major issue on the agenda was approving the digital census, which was conducted earlier this year.

Earlier, the council's meeting was held up due to the arrival of Balochistan's Chief Minister Quddoos Bizenjo.

Addressing a news conference in Islamabad, Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb clarified that no decision had been taken on the digital census in the CCI meeting thus far since they were waiting on the Balochistan Chief Minister, whose plane had been delayed.

Noting that PM Shehbaz Sharif wanted to wait for the Balochistan chief minister, Aurangzeb said that a decision on approving or deferring the census results would be taken today.

READ MORE: Delay In Elections? CCI Meeting To Decide Matter This Week

If the census is ratified by the council, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will be bound to conduct the upcoming elections per the census. In this regard, it would need to hold new delimitation of constituencies per the new census figures, a process which is expected to take around three to four months and could delay the elections past the 90 days the caretaker set up will have constitutionally to hold polls.

Only two participating chief ministers still enjoy public mandate from their respective provinces, while the remaining two chief ministers, from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are interim chief ministers who were appointed by the government after the elected assemblies in these provinces were dissolved earlier this year.

Kunwar Dilshad, a former secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, suggested that it could take up to six to seven months to complete the delimitations per the new census, effectively delaying the polls beyond the three month constitutional deadline.

Federal Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar said that there was a constitutional requirement, per a decision of the CCI in January 2021 under Imran Khan's government, to hold the next election per new census because all the provinces and political parties had reservations on the census of 2017.

Tarar said that MQM, BAP and JUI-F representatives were invited to the CCI's meeting per special invitation to participate in the discussion even though they had no voting powers. He added that all parties put forward their reservations and consensus was evolved after addressing concerns.

He added that seats allocated to each province in the National Assembly will not change because the census results are such that it does not have any impact on the seats of each province.

Asked how there is no change in seats per the census, he explained that initial results of the census showed that population of one province had fallen by nine percent. However, contrary to past census, this time support was taken from the National Database Regulatory Authority (NADRA), Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) were used for a forensic and scientific scrutiny of the census data thereafter, no change in National Assembly seats would be needed.

However, he said that the seat distribution within provinces, between cities and villages, will be impacted per the census.

Legality of interim chief ministers approving census in CCI

Senior legal expert and two-time former Attorney General of Pakistan (the government's top lawyer) Ashtar Ausaf told The Friday Times that a decision taken by the caretaker chief minister to ratify the population census in the council would be deemed valid.

"According to the Constitution, their [Interim CMs] consent will be considered legal," he said, arguing that the oath taken by the interim chief ministers and regular, elected chief ministers are the same.

The approval of the population census with the consent of interim chief ministers will be considered valid at every stage, he asserted.

However, senior legal expert Barrister Shoaib Shaheen contended that interim chief ministers are now empowered to participate in the CCI meeting.

The purpose of the interim setup is to run day-to-day affairs of government, he told The Friday Times.

Barrister Shaheen added that in the event that the caretaker chief ministers grant approval for the population census contributing to the council's considered decision, this decision can be legally challenged.