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Thursday August 11, 2022

Punjab politics

By Editorial Board
June 30, 2022

It seems politics in Punjab will continue moving around in circles. The Punjab CM election is back in the news, this time because the Lahore High Court is hearing pleas by the PTI and PML-Q against Hamza Shehbaz’s election as chief minister of Punjab. A five-member larger bench headed by Justice Sadaqat Ali Khan will resume hearing today. Whether the Supreme Court’s verdict on the vote of dissident members applies to this hearing is still not yet settled, given that the LHC had earlier hinted at holding the CM elections again. Hamza Shehbaz was elected as chief minister on April 16 with the help of 25 votes of dissident PTI members. Later in May, the Election Commission of Pakistan de-seated these dissident members under Article 63-A, the defection clause. By-polls are all set to take place next month in Punjab on 20 seats of those members who had been de-seated, but this could change with the LHC verdict. All this will no doubt lead to further confusion within the ranks of the ruling PML-N – something the party hardly needs at the moment, what with the governance challenges it faces on the federal level. Months after the vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly, which set the ball rolling for change in Punjab as well, we are yet to answer a simple question: does Punjab have a functional government or not? The mystery should have been put to rest with the ECP’s decision on de-seating members and fresh by-polls on those seats but things could get more uncertain if there is to be a re-election of the CM.

Hamza has a small cabinet at the moment. More members were going to take oath later but that too is on hold. The Punjab government’s strategy will most likely be to challenge the LHC verdict in the Supreme Court if it does not go its way. If there is a re-election in Punjab for the CM slot, that will further create a constitutional crisis. This will also depend on the five reserved seats. If they are restored, a re-election may mean more numbers for the opposition depending on these votes. No CM candidate will even then hold the magic number of 186, which could very well lead to two elections given that no one holds a majority. All this means more of a power vacuum in Punjab. Already, there are two parallel governments in Punjab right now: one led by CM Hamza and one through Speaker Punjab Assembly Pervaiz Elahi. We saw what happened in the budget sessions: absolute mayhem and disruption, with a whole session having to be called by the governor just so the budget could be presented and passed. In case of re-election, what will happen to the executive decisions made by Hamza? These are all questions that will be answered once the LHC verdict is announced but one thing is clear: if there is no stability in Punjab, it affects the government in the centre as well.

A government in the centre that has its hands tied due to the IMF programme and major economic landmines will also be fighting to stay alive in Punjab, which is considered the real battleground between the PML-N and PTI. Imran Khan’s populist politics and the games being played by Elahi in Punjab are turning out to be serious hurdles in the way of effective governance of a province that has been seen as a Sharif stronghold and an example of the much-hailed ‘Shehbaz Speed’. Some observers believe that Hamza Shehbaz will survive after the by-polls as a major win there will ensure he stays the CM while some believe that a re-election, if called right now, will weaken his position. As has been the case these past few months, Punjab’s politics presents a confusion the PML-N and the PDM government can do without.

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