On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Pakistan made a ruling declaring that the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to postpone the polls for the Punjab Assembly until October 8th was unconstitutional. The court set a new date for the polls, May 14th, for the province.
The ruling stated that the ECP’s order, dated March 22nd, 2023, was invalid and had no legal effect because the Commission had no authority or jurisdiction to extend the election date beyond the 90-day period provided in Article 224(2) of the Constitution.
Previously, the elections in Punjab were scheduled for April 30th, but the ECP, in consultation with the President, changed the date to October 8th.
The Supreme Court’s decision was issued by a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial and comprised of Justice Munib Akhtar and Justice Ijazul Ahsan.
The Supreme Court has issued a written verdict which has restored the election schedule issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on March 8 with certain modifications.
These changes include a new last date of April 10 for filing appeals against the decision of the returning officer to reject or accept the nomination papers, and April 17 for deciding on appeals by the Appellate Tribunal.
The revised list of candidates will be published on April 18, followed by April 19 as the last date for the withdrawal of candidature and publication of the revised list of candidates.
On April 20, electoral symbols will be allotted to the contesting candidates, and the polling will be held on May 14.
The court has observed that during the hearings, the ECP had stated that if it received the necessary assistance and support from the executive authorities in the provinces and Centre, the commission would be able to organize and conduct the general elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies honestly, justly, and fairly.
In a recent development, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has directed the federal government to release election funds worth Rs21 billion to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by April 10, in order to hold elections in the assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
The ECP is required to submit a report to the court by April 11, stating whether the funds have been provided and received in full or in part. If there is a shortfall or the funds have not been provided, the court has the authority to issue appropriate orders to the relevant authorities.
The court has instructed the ECP to utilize the funds for elections to the Punjab Assembly in the first instance. If there is a shortage of funds for the KP polls later, the ECP may request appropriate orders from the court.
Additionally, the court has directed the Punjab caretaker government, inspector general, and chief secretary (security) to provide the electoral body with a security plan by April 10.
The court has emphasized that the federal government is bound to provide aid and assistance to the ECP as required by the commission for holding elections in Punjab and KP. It has directed the government to provide all necessary personnel, including those from the Armed Forces, Rangers, Frontier Constabulary, and all other forces under the government’s direct or indirect command, as required by the commission for security and other purposes related to the general elections.
In this regard, the federal government must provide a plan to the ECP by April 17. The court has warned that if the government fails to provide aid and assistance to the ECP, the commission may approach the court, and an appropriate order will be passed on the matter.
The court has also granted permission to the petitioners to file a petition or seek relief before any appropriate forum for elections in KP, as the counsel of the KP governor had withdrawn from appearance in court on account of a certain stand taken by a political party, which the learned counsel was also representing.
In its March 1 verdict, the Supreme Court had ordered elections in KP and Punjab to be held within 90 days, which was disputed by the government.
In today’s order, the court has maintained that the verdict issued by Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Aminuddin Khan on March 29 did not affect any observations made in today’s order. The court has also clarified that the position claimed by the learned judges in the minority in the March 1 verdict was erroneous and not sustainable in law.
The SC has issued its much-anticipated decision on the PTI petition in Court Room 1, where coalition leaders, journalists, and lawyers were present. Outside the court’s building, heavy security was deployed with a large contingent of police guarding the main entrance.
According to the Law Minister, the political crisis is likely to worsen
Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar expressed disappointment in a press conference following the announcement of a verdict, stating that the Supreme Court should have made a decision with “collective wisdom”.
Tarar believed that the “current political situation and crisis will further aggravate” as a result of the ruling. According to Tarar, ECP lawyers and other stakeholders had argued that the court should have first decided on the March 1 verdict which was “rejected 4-3”. Tarar expressed the opinion that a full court should have cleared the confusion.
Tarar announced that the cabinet would discuss the matter at their meeting on the same day. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah also weighed in on the issue earlier in the day, stating that elections should be held simultaneously in the country. Sanaullah believed that holding separate polls for provincial assemblies would only create anarchy, chaos, and further political crises.
Meanwhile, PML-N chief organizer Maryam Nawaz expressed her rejection of the verdict in a series of tweets. Nawaz alleged that the order was part of the “controversy” through which the Punjab government was being given to PTI chairman Imran Khan “on a plate”.
Nawaz also cast aspersions on the three-member bench that issued the verdict, claiming that the “one-man show” in the SC had been challenged from inside the apex court. Finally, Nawaz called on Parliament to use its constitutional and legal powers to “stop this facilitation.”
PTI refers to the recent verdict as a “watershed moment”
PTI vice-chairperson Shah Mahmood Qureshi expressed his congratulations to the nation and hailed the Supreme Court’s decision as a landmark moment in Pakistan’s history.
He remarked that the doctrine of necessity has been finally laid to rest, and the sanctity of the Constitution has been restored. Qureshi also stated that the verdict has put an end to all those elements that were conspiring against democracy and the constitutional system in the country.
PTI vice-chairperson Shah Mahmood Qureshi termed the Supreme Court’s verdict as a “watershed moment” while speaking to the media outside the court.
He said that today was a significant day in Pakistan’s political history, and the court has drawn a clear line between democratic and unconstitutional forces. Qureshi also mentioned that the chief election commissioner is now free to conduct elections as his hands were bound before.
He praised the Supreme Court for freeing the election commission of all pressures and said that they should fulfil their constitutional responsibility to conduct free, fair and credible elections.
Another PTI leader, Fawad Chaudhry, called the Chief Justice of Pakistan a “people’s chief justice” and applauded the order, saying that very few people have the privilege to receive the amount of respect that Justice Bandial and his fellow judges have gained today.
“Supreme Court hears case with reduced number of judges: A diminished bench”
The case hearings, which lasted over a week, were fraught with drama after two judges of the original five-member bench – Justices Aminuddin Khan and Jamal Khan Mandokhail – recused themselves from hearing the case.
This exposed the divisions within the SC. As a result, the bench was reconstituted with the remaining judges: CJP Bandial, Justice Ahsan and Justice Akhtar.
The coalition government had been insisting on a full court to hear the case and raised concerns about the bench’s composition.
In a National Assembly meeting, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said the coalition had no confidence in the three-member SC bench. Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar had also criticized the top court judge’s hours.
Last week, parties in the coalition government issued a joint statement expressing their distrust in the three-member bench and demanding the proceedings to be wrapped up. They pointed out the clear division within the SC and asked it to refrain from issuing controversial political decisions.
In addition, earlier this month, the government proposed the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill 2023 to deprive the office of the CJP of powers to take suo motu notice in an individual capacity. While both houses have passed the bill, it still awaits the president’s approval.
Debate continues over Election Date Order in Pakistan’s Supreme Court
During a recent hearing, a debate ensued regarding the Supreme Court’s March 1st verdict on holding elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab within 90 days.
The verdict was issued with a 3-2 majority by the bench, but the government disputed it, calling it a 4-3 decision. The contention was based on objections raised by Justices Jamal Khan Mandokhail and Syed Mansoor Ali Shah on the bench’s constitution and the chief justice’s use of suo motu jurisdiction.
The Attorney General for Pakistan, Mansoor Awan, made arguments in favor of the government’s position. However, the Chief Justice of Pakistan dismissed the controversy, saying that no judge had recused themselves from the nine-judge bench, and that all judges had requested him to reconstitute the bench. The concept of an “order of the day” in the case of dissenting judgments was also challenged by the Chief Justice.
The Petition Of PTI
PTI leaders have filed a petition challenging the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to delay the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab provinces beyond the 90-day limit as prescribed in the Constitution.
The party’s Secretary General Asad Umar, former Punjab Assembly speaker Mohammad Sibtain Khan, former KP Assembly Speaker Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani, and two ex-lawmakers of Punjab, Abdul Rehman and Mian Mahmoodur Rashid, have moved the petition.
The petition argues that the ECP’s decision violates the Constitution and amounts to amending and subverting it. The PTI has asked the court to direct the federal government to ensure law and order, provision of funds and security personnel as per the ECP’s need to hold the elections.
The party has also requested the court to direct the KP governor to announce the date for elections to the provincial assembly. The PTI has questioned the ECP’s authority to delay the polls and asked how it could decide to delay elections to any assembly beyond the 90-day limit from the date of dissolution of the said assembly as mandated by the Constitution.
The party contends that the ECP is bound to obey and implement the Supreme Court’s judgments and has no power or jurisdiction to overrule or review them. The PTI’s petition argues that the ECP’s decision to announce Oct 8 as the date for KP and Punjab elections has delayed the elections for more than 183 days beyond the 90-day limit as prescribed in the Constitution.
The petition adds that if the excuse of unavailability of security personnel was accepted this time, it would set a precedent to delay any future elections. The PTI also fears that the so-called excuse would mean the Constitution could be held in abeyance every time elections were due. The party believes that not holding elections in case of threats by terrorists would amount to giving in to the threats, which is in fact the aim of all terrorist activities.