ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and federal and Punjab ministers are allowed to fully campaign for their candidates in the forthcoming high-profile by-elections as the prohibition was dispensed with by the Lahore High Court (LHC) some time back.
Political rivals have often objected to the direct involvement of senior government leaders in the poll campaign for being unaware of the court order that struck down a clause of the Code of Conduct of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which imposed this bar on them.
The clause was challenged by Mansoor Sarwar Khan, advocate, President of the central region Punjab of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).
LHC judge Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah held two months back that the ECP cannot limit political activity or make a political party dysfunctional by putting restrictions on the movement of its leaders or members because such a freedom is grounded in fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
The public office holders like the prime minister, chief minister, federal ministers, ministers of state and advisors to the president also wear a political hat and belong to a political party, the judgment said.
They are not in the service of Pakistan, it said. Hence they are free to attend to their political obligations of running a political party and are fully entitled to the fundamental right guaranteed to them under article 17(2). A political party has to freely conduct electioneering, canvassing and the electoral campaign.
This political activism, the ruling said, is the foundation of modern parliamentary democracy and cannot be restricted by the ECP. The issue of abuse of public office and public funds on a case-to-case basis can be easily addressed under the Representation of People Act (ROPA), and the law will take its own course, when any such violation takes place.
In an open political space and a vigilant media, such violations cannot remain hidden and are likely to be immediately highlighted by the opposing parties, the judgment said. Therefore, to restrict the party leaders, party workers or any public office holders including the prime minister, chairman and deputy chairman of the Senate, speakers of assemblies, federal minister, ministers of state, chief minister, provincial ministers and advisors to the prime minister and the chief minister and other public office holders, except the president, who is an emblem of unity of the Federation and is non-partisan, to visit the area of the constituency during electioneering offends the fundamental rights under the Constitution.
The clause that imposes restriction on public office holders not to visit the constituencies where by-elections are being held is declared to be unconstitutional and illegal and therefore struck down, the judge wrote.
Petitioner Mansoor Sarwar Khan disputed the bar on PTI Chairman Imran Khan to canvass in the by-elections then being held in Punjab. The ECP code had prohibited federal and provincial lawmakers from visiting the areas, where by-polls were being held, after the issuance of the election schedule.
He contended that it is integral to an electoral campaign that the party leaders visit the constituencies, address the electorate and meet the party workers. He argued that the ECP code stifled the electioneering plans of the political party by curbing its activism, which is a core value of any parliamentary democracy.
The federal government lawyer readily agreed with the contentions raised by Mansoor Sarwar Khan and added that physical movement of the political leaders cannot be restrained and they cannot be barred from visiting the area of the constituencies during a poll campaign.
He said that the restriction on the movement of political leaders and public office holders including the prime minister, chief minister, federal ministers, state ministers and advisors to the president is also unconstitutional as they are also party leaders and cannot be deprived of their political role.
According to the judgment, the only restriction under the law is that no person will convene, hold or attend any public meeting, and no person will promote or join in any procession within the area of any constituency during a period of 48 hours ending at midnight following the conclusion of the poll for any election.
The apprehensions of the ECP are addressed under the ROPA which provide for remedies in case the public office holders abuse their public position or public fund during electioneering. The ECP has appealed against the LHC decision in the Supreme Court. On August 16, it said in a statement that some political parties have objected to the visits of public office holders and the canvassing for their candidates in National Assembly constituency NA-19 Haripur. It said the code was amended in the light of the LHC judgment and the clause was removed. It said that objection poured in from PTI and pointed out that the petition challenging the clause had been filed by a PTI leader.