As expected, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has taken notice of Punjab CM Hamza Shahbaz’s move to provide free electricity for homes that consume under 100 units and has asked for the Punjab government not to operationalise this project until the voters have had their say in the July 17 by-elections. The ECP’s ruling comes in light of the upcoming by-elections in the province, which will be crucial in determining the structure of the provincial parliament and in effect, the provincial government once the count is finalised.

The government contends that this scheme does not violate the campaigning rules of the ECP since the project was budgeted for before the ECP directives came in and that it was not targeted toward the vacant constituencies specifically, but the province as a whole. The provincial government’s representatives will now be looking to use this reasoning as a means to change the ECP’s mind.

But this might not be possible, because the election regulatory body has a point to its argument. It does not matter whether the government had planned to provide free electricity to the poor in advance, the timing of the announcement and disbursal is far too convenient for the government to not derive benefit from it in the upcoming elections. A steep rise in inflation has led to the poorest families’ struggle to survive and the electricity bills have a large part to play in this. A sudden waiver of this cost could tip the scales in favour of the current PML-N-led government in Punjab.

It is, however, very unfortunate that such an important step is being delayed as a result of the process that is in place to help set up an administration to serve the best interests of the general public. The government could have avoided this entirely if it had announced the project during the budget speech. This would have allowed for the subsidy to be rolled out without political considerations being questioned. The provincial government should now look ahead and focus on winning the maximum number of seats in the upcoming contest; a victory will help the PML-N-led coalition in Punjab keep its government and deliver over the next year, which will be crucial in solidifying support in the next year’s general elections.