The PTI and the PDM are still at loggerheads over elections to provincial assemblies
lections for the Punjab Assembly are due within 90 days of the provincial legislature’s dissolution. However, polling within the given timeframe appears unlikely due to several reasons. Instead, the major political parties look more likely to remain embroiled in legal battles.
The Election Commission of Pakistan has decided to hold by-polls for 15 National Assembly constituencies in the Punjab on March 19. However, the parties making up the Pakistan Democratic Movement have decided not to contest the by-polls.
The Punjab Assembly stood dissolved on January 14 after Parvez Elahi, the former chief minister, forwarded a summary in this regard to Governor Baligh-ur Rehman on January 12. The governor did not issue a notification to the effect and the assembly got automatically dissolved after 48 hours.
Later, the ECP wrote a letter to the governor requesting him to set a date for the Punjab Assembly elections between April 9 and April. However, the governor took the position that since he had not initiated or endorsed the dissolution of the provincial assembly, he was not required to set a date. He said that under the circumstances it was a job for the Election Commission.
On February 8, the chief election commissioner held a meeting with the chief secretary and the inspector general of Police Punjab to discuss arrangements for the Punjab Assembly elections and by-polls for the National Assembly constituencies. The chief secretary and the IGP told the ECP that it would be hard to provide assistance for holding the elections for various reasons including the census that would start in March 2023, harvesting of wheat crops in April and the threat of terrorist attacks.
Earlier, the PTI had filed a petition in the Lahore High Court against the ECP and the Punjab governor. The LHC had issued an order on February 10, directing the ECP to ensure that the elections were held within the constitutional timeframe of 90 days.
The ECP held a meeting with the governor on February 13. It told him that the meeting was organised under the court’s order to fix a date for the elections in Punjab. However, the governor did not budge from his stance. He said: “The court’s order and the constitutional clauses require further interpretation. We will file a petition, seeking further interpretation by the court. Therefore, I cannot set a date as I did not dissolve the assembly.”
On the other hand, a two-member bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justice Ejaz-ul Ahsan and Justice Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi also took up the issue of the Punjab Assembly’s elections while hearing the case about CCPO Ghulam Mahmood Dogar’s transfer by the caretaker government in the Punjab. The court asked the chief election commissioner to appear before it immediately. When the CEC, Sikandar Sultan Raja, reached the court, Justice Ahsan remarked: “The constitution obligates elections within 90 days. A failure to hold the elections within the stipulated time will be a constitutional violation.”
Earlier, the PTI had filed a petition in the Lahore High Court against the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Punjab governor. The LHC had issued an order on February 10, directing the ECP to ensure that elections were held within the constitutional timeframe of 90 days.
The CEC told the court that he was being stopped from exercising his powers. “When I sought security for the elections, I was refused. When I asked the Judiciary for permission to engage judges from the lower judiciary for election duties, I was refused. When I asked for money for the elections, the Executive refused the request.”
The SC then directed the CEC to submit a detailed report about the obstacles to holding the elections.
On February 16, a citizen, Munir Ahmad, filed a petition in the Lahore High Court, requesting the court to direct President Arif Alvi to set a date for the elections for Punjab Assembly.
The same day, Governor Rehman filed an appeal against the LHC decision. He requested the LHC to constitute a two-member bench to further interpret the constitution as he had no role in the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly. He reiterated that he could not be a part of the consultation with Election Commission of Pakistan to determine a date for the elections in Punjab Assembly.
The recent developments show that major affairs of the state are now in the hands of the courts. Superior courts are now hearing cases against amendments to the accountability laws, appointments in provincial and federal jobs, interpretation of the constitution and political positions.
Outside the court, the situation is no better. The government has passed a new money bill, raising taxes and fuel prices that has made it even more unpopular. The PDM parties have decided not to contest the by-polls in March. This means that the PML-N, the PPP, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal) will not field any candidates for by-elections. The MQM, which is a part of the government but not the PDM, will contest election from Karachi. The major reason behind the PDM’s decision appears to be its unpopularity on account of price hikes and governance-related issues. The opposition PTI, which had earlier decided that its chairman, Imran Khan would contest from all by-election constituencies, has withdrawn the decision and fielded other candidates from the constituencies.
Sensing the gravity of the situation, PML-N’s new chief organiser, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, is working to re-organise her party on a war footing. She has started with meetings in southern Punjab. Since then she has visited the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. She has also been meeting party leaders from other provinces. However, the youth have been her special focus. At the same time, she is facing difficult questions posed by the youth because of the governance. On Thursday, she met several youth leaders, who criticised the government for its poor performance and the price hikes. According to the PML-N insiders, she responded to them: “It is not my government. It will be my government once Nawaz Sharif returns and once again leads the country to prosperity.” The statement indicates that she is facing problems in re-organising the party and motivating the youth in the PML-N’s favour.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan has successfully avoided arrest. However, several cases remain a threat to his freedom. He has decided to give a tough time to the government by announcing a Jail Bharo movement. If the PTI supporters start offering arrests, it will be another tough challenge for the government to handle. However, it is hard at this stage to predict the effectiveness of such a strategy.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at BukhariMubasher