The Council of Common Interests (CCI) “unanimously” approved the results of the 2023 digital census on Saturday, according to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), signifying that a delay in the general elections slated to take place later this year was almost certain now.
The government has announced that assemblies will be dissolved on August 9, following which elections should be held within 90 days of the end of the assemblies’ tenure.
But Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said during an interview earlier this week that elections would be held on the basis of the latest census, while the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has already expressed its inability to hold general polls on the basis of the new population count within the stipulated time as it will have to conduct a fresh delimitation of constituencies in this case.
Meanwhile, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM) and PPP — two of the government’s allies in the Centre — had expressed reservations about the new census. Yesterday, PPP senators in the upper house of Parliament also termed the decision to hold the elections on the basis of the new census a tactic to delay the polls.
However, the PMO statement said the chief ministers of all four provinces and representatives of all political parties were in agreement on the new census results at the CCI’s 50th meeting today, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Law minister sees a delay of 2-2.5 months at most in polls
Earlier, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar also told Geo News that the new census results were “unanimously” approved at the CCI meeting.
When asked about a delay in the elections, he defended the PML-N-led government’s decision by citing Article 51 of the Constitution, which seats that National Assembly (NA) seats should be allocated to administrative units “on the basis of population in accordance with the last preceding census officially published”.
Tarar also referred to a 2021 CCI decision to hold the next elections on the basis of the 2023 census as “provinces had reservations about the old (2017) census”.
The law minister said it was now up to the ECP to set begin and complete the delimitation of constituencies on the basis of the new population count.
“There is an outer limit of 120 days … and it now depends on the ECP how soon it begins this process and completes the delimitation.”
He was of the view that if the delimitation was carried out in an effective and efficient manner, it could be completed in less than 120 days. “I believe that polls will then be delayed but two to two and a half months at the most,” he added.
Asked whether the caretaker setup would need any legal or constitutional cover in case of an extended term due to delay in the elections, he replied in the negative.
The law minister also maintained that the new population count would not have any effect on the distribution of seats among administrative units in the NA. The distribution would remain unchanged, he insisted, adding that the initial census results had been reviewed and revised following a scientific audit.
The decision to hold a fresh census was taken by the CCI chaired by then-prime minister Imran Khan in April 2021 after serious objections were raised both by the government of Sindh, headed by the PPP, and the MQM-P, which was then a coalition partner of the federal government.
Both the PPP and MQM-P felt that Sindh’s population had been undercounted in the 2017 census, though the MQM-P’s concern was more focused on the urban areas of Sindh, including Karachi.
The Seventh Population and Housing Census, subsequently commenced on March 1 and concluded on May 15, after its deadline was extended five times.
The results were presented in the CCI meeting today where the planning ministry and Pakistan Bureau of Statistics gave a detailed briefing.
According to census results, Pakistan’s population has risen to 241.49 million with an annual growth rate of 2.55 per cent.
The breakdown of the census results shows Punjab’s population is 127.68m with a growth rate of 2.53pc, Sindh’s is 55.69m with a growth rate of 2.57pc, Balochistan’s is 14.89m with a growth rate of 3.2pc, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s is 40.85m with a growth rate of 2.38pc and Islamabad’s 2.36m with a growth rate of 2.81pc.
The percentage of the rural population in the country is 61.18pc while urban is 38.82pc.
In light of these results, PM Shehbaz said: “In the last six years, the population has increased by 35m, which is a cause for concern. Pakistan’s population growth rate is much higher than Pakistan’s economic growth.”
He underscored the need for controlling and overcoming the challenge of population growth by accelerating the pace of economic development.