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Thursday May 30, 2024

Constitutional crisis

There are also serious reservations over how Article 5 has been used as an excuse by the PTI government to effectively violate the constitution.

By Editorial Board
April 04, 2022

The chaos expected on D-Day turned out to be quite different – and far more dangerous. On Sunday morning, also the first of Ramazan, the country tuned in to what was supposed to be a vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan. Instead, we ended up with Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri dismissing the no-confidence motion while citing Article 5 of the constitution which pertains to ‘loyalty to the state’, the prime minister asking the president to dissolve the assemblies, and the president doing just that while ordering fresh elections in 90 days. In a matter of just a few hours, the country found itself without a working federal government and in the midst of a raging constitutional debate leading to the Supreme Court being opened up on a Sunday under extraordinary circumstances. Per initial court orders, a bench has been formed and the actions of the PM and president are now subject to court orders. The hearing on the issue starts today. Meanwhile, in Punjab, Chaudhry Sarwar was dismissed as governor, as Omer Sarfraz Cheema took over as the new governor. The Punjab Assembly CM election was also postponed as the session was adjourned till April 6.

While the SC will be looking into the deputy speaker’s actions and the dissolution of assemblies, legal opinion has come in almost immediately, many terming Imran Khan’s actions an ‘abrogation’ of the constitution. There are also serious reservations over how Article 5 has been used as an excuse by the PTI government to effectively violate the constitution. Ironically, the Article says that “obedience to the constitution and law is the inviolable obligation of every citizen”. What happened on Sunday is unprecedented in that a civilian PM chose to take the route of dissolving assemblies, instead of facing a vote of no-confidence. Observers and experts in law and history say that, while such unconstitutional moves have been made by dictators over the years, a civilian government flouting all rules to save its power this way is new and sets a terrible precedent if not declared null and void. The SC now has to look at a number of questions: first, can the SC actually do something in this matter, given the jurisdiction limits per Article 69? Then, was Suri’s act unconstitutional? If so, did Imran Khan and the president in fact abrogate the constitution? While Article 58 gives the president the right to dissolve the National Assembly on the PM’s advice, does the Article still apply on a PM facing [an undecided] vote of no-confidence? Is the act of invoking Article 5 and questioning the loyalty of the entire opposition excuse enough to dismiss the vote of no-confidence? Has the deputy speaker subverted the constitution by acting beyond the powers vested in him under the Rules of Business in case of a vote of no-confidence?

These are all questions every constitutionalist will be mulling over in what is a unique moment even for our constitutional history, which has had its fair share of twists and turns. The opposition is crying not just foul play but Article 6 – high treason – which it says is what Imran Khan’s actions amount to. The PTI is claiming victory and urging for new elections. And the courts have serious work ahead of them. It is unfortunate that the PTI chose to use Article 5 to demonize an entire political class. Whether that is worth whatever value these bizarre turn of events have for the PTI is for the party to decide but the country today stands even more polarized not to mention the dangerous precedent set by Imran Khan: if this is acceptable then what stops any future prime minister from dissolving assemblies any time s/he faces a no-confidence motion? With the PTI deciding that democratic principles are subservient to immediate power, and with the PTI and the opposition happily slinging threats of Article 6 back and forth, it seems election season – which may have already started – will be less about the people or democratic principles and more about conspiracies and certificates of patriotism.