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Saturday April 13, 2024

PTI’s quest for reserved seats may not be smooth sailing

PTI announced it would be officially joining Sunni Ittehad Council in National Assembly as well as in provinces

By Zebunnisa Burki
February 20, 2024
PTI supporters and workers hold flags in a rally. — AFP/File
PTI supporters and workers hold flags in a rally. — AFP/File

KARACHI: There could be legal obstacles to the PTI getting its independents’ share of reserved seats in the National Assembly by joining the Sunni Ittehad Council. However, legal experts say that not granting the PTI its reserved seats could lead to an incomplete parliament.

On Monday, the PTI announced it would be officially joining the Sunni Ittehad Council in the National Assembly as well as in provinces including Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

How would this arrangement work? Journalist Majid Nizami tells The News that, while the Sunni Ittehad Council has not won any seat in the National Assembly and even its chairman contested on a PTI-supported independent seat, it is a registered party and anyone can join in. According to Nizami, how this will work is that now the Sunni Ittehad Council will file an application in the ECP, saying it has these many MNAs and it needs its reserved seats’ list to be accommodated.

Nizami explains that the PTI getting its reserved seats won’t help it form government but of course will help it increase its strength in the National Assembly.It may not be smooth sailing for this partnership, though. Nizami feels that there will definitely be a legal fight regarding this and someone or the other will take the matter to court, even though he says this should not be such a cumbersome process for the PTI.

On Monday night, PTI leader and Supreme Court advocate Salman Akram Raja also told Geo’s Hamid Mir that according to him the PTI should get its reserved seats but that “if someone wants to create a legal obstacle in this they can”.

Raja questioned that if for whatever reason the PTI independent candidates don’t get their reserved seats, “will parliament just be left incomplete?” Per Raja, “These seats can’t go to any other party in addition to whatever reserved seats they have acquired based on seats they have won.”

Speaking of the hurdle to this step by the PTI, Raja told Geo News that a legal obstacle could be raised in the form of Section 104 of the Election Act, 2017.

Talking to The News, Advocate Hafiz Ahsaan Ahmad Khokhar explains the legal hurdle thus: “No party is allowed -- under Section 104 of the Election Act read with Rule 92 of the Election Rules -- to file a new list of priority lists for women and non-Muslim reserved seats as it is mandatory under the law to follow the election schedule issued by the ECP even for reserved seats as it applied for both general and reserved seats.”

Raja too had mentioned this in his talk with Geo, adding however that this clause of the Election Act is subservient to the constitution and should be read in light of what the constitution says.

This is not all, though. Khokhar also says that under “articles 51, 106 and 224 of the constitution read with Section 104 of the Election Act, 2017 and Rule 92 of the Election Rules, allocation and distribution of reserved seats for women and non-Muslims is only for those political parties which have a presence in the assembly through their own election symbol after the general election but when such political party does not have a legal existence through elected representatives, then independent returned candidates will not have the legal option to join such political party as per scheme of law.”

Khokhar adds that “neither the ECP nor a political party can deviate or bypass the provisions relating to reserved seats for women and non-Muslims and all has been mentioned in articles 51, 106, and 224 of the constitution and Section 104 of the Election Act and rules 92, 93, and 94 of the Election Rules.”

On what this partnership with the Sunni Ittehad Council means to the PTI, journalist Mehmal Sarfraz says that the PTI “has no choice at the moment other than joining a smaller political party so that it doesn’t lose on its reserved seats quota. THE SIC or even MWM was their safest bet(s).” She adds: “I have said before that for the PTI to join a religious party would not be a problem for its voters and supporters because they wouldn’t want their vote to go to waste. And if PTI doesn’t end up getting its reserved seats, it would be a major blow to the party and its voters like taking away its symbol bat just before the elections.”

The next natural question is whether this joining of the Sunni Ittehad would lead to the PTI losing a sense of identity as a party. Would the PTI stay the PTI if its independent candidates joined the Sunni Ittehad Council?

Mehmal is unsure of what the process will be but does say that perhaps an intra-party election could happen at some stage. She also thinks that “the PTI is banking on the next government not lasting long.”

Constitutional lawyer Usama Khawar offers a legal point of view regarding this: “It is important to note that joining the SIC does not necessarily mean that the PTI loses its identity as a political party outside the National Assembly. The PTI-backed candidates may sit as members of the SIC group in the National Assembly while retaining their affiliation with the PTI. This strategic alliance aims to strengthen the PTI’s position in the National Assembly and enhance its representation, ultimately contributing to the formation of the government.”

Khawar further explains that it is “essential to differentiate between a political party and a parliamentary party; they are related but distinct legal entities. While the PTI remains a political party, its loss of the election symbol renders it legally unable to form a parliamentary party in the current scenario. If PTI-backed candidates join the parliamentary party of the SIC, they will become members of the SIC political party, resulting in the loss of their membership in the PTI.”

What happens thus is that “the SIC, as a political party, will be awarded the reserved seats, not the PTI. The PTI maintains its identity as a political party outside the National Assembly, but it may not be able to form a parliamentary party under the current circumstances.”