ECP to propose limit on seats a candidate can run from

Umar Cheema
Friday, Oct 21, 2022

ISLAMABAD: Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is working on a proposal to suggest a constitutional amendment to bar a candidate from contesting more than two seats as this provision results in holding elections again and again that only burdens public exchequer but also causes unnecessary stress to the voters.

The ECP realised this point when Imran Khan submitted nomination papers from as many as seven National Assembly constituencies for the by-elections held on October 16. Now, when he has won from six constituencies, Imran will vacate five seats. Since he is already an MNA, that seat will also be vacated once the official notification of results is issued. Consequently, by-elections will take place on six seats.

By-election in one National Assembly constituency took Rs75.8 million of public exchequer, ECP record shows. This spending was carried out on the printing of ballot papers, payment to polling staff, training of polling personnel, transportation of goods, security expenses and others. The individual spending done by contesting candidates is apart from this. According to an estimate, the National Assembly election cost an average Rs40-50 million to the main contenders.

While the elections aimed to grant representations to the constituents have been held, this turns out to be a zero-sum game. Taking Imran Khan’s word as a guide, people voted for him knowing well that he would not sit in the assembly. It was a referendum, he said, meaning thereby he went for this political exercise at the cost of public exchequer. As the by-elections will be held on six seats, this will cost Rs454.8 million to the exchequer whereas candidates afford expenses most likely through their financiers.

According to article 223 (2) of the Constitution, nothing “shall prevent a person from being a candidate for two or more seats at the same time.” Imran Khan has made history by exploiting this provision. Last, he contested from five seats in the 2018 general elections and won all of them. Before him, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto contested at five seats.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, said the amendment is much needed. He agreed to the point that there is growing realisation of this flawed provision especially after the by-election.

“Since it (the constitutional provision) has not been unreasonably used to this extent in the past, there was no realisation. It is now being increasingly felt. I don’t see any opposition to this amendment,” he said talking to ‘The News’.

Now, as the work on proposal is in progress, the ECP is reviewing the best practices in different countries in order to build a case why legislation is important to determine a limit for a candidate in terms of a number of seats. India is included among these countries where a candidate can’t contest from more than two constituencies. Interestingly, there is even a growing demand to either limit the contest of a candidate to only one constituency or charge him the expenses incurred on holding by-elections on the seat vacated by him/ her.

There was no bar even in India till 1996 when the Representation of People Act 1951 was amended. The Election Commission of India has recommended at four different times (in 2004, 2010, 2016 and again in 2018) an amendment in the existing laws in order to bar one candidate from contesting from even more than one seat. These recommendations were given to the Indian government and the Supreme Court. However, nothing has been done on this so far.

Before the 1996 amendment in Indian election law, the candidates would contest from more than two seats either to prove their popularity or to cover a risk of loss at a seat. Again, nobody contested from more than three seats. Former Indian PM, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the one to set this precedent who in 1957 contested from three different constituencies. After the amendment in 1996, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi each contested from two seats, among others.