Elections 2023: ECP In A Dilemma On Delimitation Strategy

Top polls body starts receiving 'advisories' as it issues guidelines and gets ready for a crucial meeting on Wednesday

Elections 2023: ECP In A Dilemma On Delimitation Strategy

The Election Commission of Pakistan is in a fix on how to approach delimitation of national and provincial assembly constituencies which does not upset everyone, causes the least disturbance and can be completed within the constitutionally stipulated timeline even as it made moves that expressed its determination to hold the polls.

The country's top electoral body is due to hold a crucial meeting of the commission on Wednesday, where it is expected to discuss how to approach delimitation of constituencies in the national and provincial assemblies ahead of general elections in the coming months.

After the national and all provincial assemblies were dissolved last week, the country has moved into a 'caretaker' mode administratively, with political parties ramping up preparations for the elections.

Fresh delimitation of constituencies became mandatory after ratifying the new population census by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) just days before the elected federal government's tenure ended. The ECP has already expressed that the delimitation exercise takes more than the three months the caretaker government constitutionally has power. This is given rise to fears that there could be a possible delay in the elections - at least for a few months.

In the aftermath of the census being ratified, the daunting task now facing the ECP is to account for at least 20 million new voters across the country, impacting how constituencies of the national and provincial assemblies are currently divided, with some regions losing seats and others gaining them. Moreover, the increase in voter population means that at least some constituencies will have to be redrawn to account for 'adjustments' even if it does not mean their number or groupings change.

Complications and suggestions

Punjab and Sindh are the provinces where the census data indicates the situation will become most complicated. 

Constitutional and political experts say there would be no difficulty in delimiting constituencies in the federal capital, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and Balochistan, except for a few districts in these territories.
However, they envision problems that could emerge in densely populated regions of Punjab and Sindh.

The mathematical complication will arise from the fact that previously, the population over which a provincial assembly seat was based was 300,000 people. For the national assembly, constituencies were drawn over 400,000 people. Per the new population census, however, officials believe the division will likely increase to 600,000 for the provincial assembly and 700,000 for the national assembly seats.

However, the complication is not just because of the change in demographics and the redrawing of boundaries to accommodate population changes while maintaining the overall balance of seats. It also stems from the ECP's challenge to conduct the exercise such that it attracts the least objection from various political parties and thus legal challenges to the lines drawn by the commission.

In this regard, the apex election body has started contemplating a plethora of tricky 'opinions' it has received about redrawing electoral boundaries of constituencies.

Insiders in the electoral watchdog say thus far, chief among the 'suggested' approaches towards delimitation communicated to them are:

  1. Delimitation of constituencies based on increased population in comparison with the last census.

  2. Delimit some constituencies in certain districts of Punjab and Sindh which have exhibited the most change.

  3. Delimitation based on dividing each district by its total population with a quota per seat for the relevant provincial assembly.

  4. In case of confusion in two districts, a fraction of more than 0.5 to be counted as one seat, and a fraction of less than 0.5 will not be counted as a seat.

These are some of the opinions and points suggested to the top poll body, which it could consider on Wednesday. 

The last option is to avoid making any significant change in the previous delimitations that could lead to delays in the electoral process and consequently delay the announcement of the next general election's schedule.

Talking to The Friday Times, former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad suggested that the top electoral watchdog must avoid disturbing the previous constituencies as the commission could enter a massive yet avoidable storm.

"Concerned districts can appeal or initiate other litigation that could cause trouble," he suggested, noting that if disagreement on the boundaries of any constituency lands in court, it could threaten to derail the process.

ECP's signal

On Tuesday, the ECP sent its strongest signal of its determination to hold the polls by forwarding its pre-election guidelines to the caretaker government.

Separately, the ECP was asked about the timeline for completing the delimitation process in the Supreme Court.

While the ECP avoided committing a final date, Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial stressed upon the commission to conduct the process of delimitations transparently. Stressing that it was a "matter of public interest", he directed the ECP to resolve all issues before the polls.

How do delimitations work in Pakistan?

The process for determining the boundary of electoral constituencies is normally handled by dividing the available geographical area into separate electoral districts or constituencies for elections based on the constitutionally determined number of seats. Population of the area in a defined geographical area is then divided accordingly.

In some areas, historical and cultural factors dominate the largely arithmetical delimitation process. When the arithmetic falls afoul of these factors, politically aligned tribal groups and clans challenge such delimitation in the defined concerned courts

Some insiders believe that since the assemblies have been dissolved and constitutional amendments are not possible to alter the process, ECP will be unable to alter the number of seats allocated in the national and provincial assemblies to each region.

How delimitations work in other countries 

The formula for redrawing the electoral boundaries varies from country to country, depending on their respective electoral systems and constitutional provisions. Some countries take care of geographical features, special provisions [Castes and minorities], Geographical features etc.

For the specific delimitation exercise, countries behave differently. Some rely on independent bodies, while others rely on political parties or government agencies. In the USA, the delimitation of constituencies is carried out by state legislature, and the process is known as redistricting. Each state is responsible for redrawing its congressional districts every ten years.

In the United Kingdom (UK), the four independent boundary commissions, one for each constituent country, are responsible for delimiting parliamentary constituencies' boundaries.

In India, constituencies are delimited by a 'Delimitation Commission' appointed by the President. 

Similarly, in South Africa, this process is carried out by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which divides the country into constituencies for national and provincial elections.

In Japan, the delimitation of constituencies is conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which is responsible for dividing the country into single-member electoral districts for national elections.