Monday May 29, 2023

The Punjab quagmire

By Editorial Board
July 03, 2022

The Supreme Court on Friday took up a petition filed by the PTI challenging the Lahore High Court’s decision ordering a recount of votes for the chief minister of Punjab position. The top court has ruled that the expected run-off election should now take place on July 22, five days after the by-elections on 20 vacant seats in the province. Hamza Shehbaz will remain CM Punjab till the run-off. The SC had previously also ruled on Article 63-A and said that defecting members' votes would not count, adding to the confusion as not only did dissident members of the PTI lose their seats but – per some legal observers – in a sense, the constitution also stood modified. The LHC decision regarding the CM run-off vote was based on the SC ruling on 63-A but the PTI did not accept what the high court had decided. Some of the Punjab opposition’s members were away for Haj while some others were also out of country, leading no doubt to anxiety within the PTI and PML-Q that had a run-off election taken place on July 1, as proposed by the LHC, Hamza Shehbaz would have secured more votes. Hence, the PTI’s appeal in the apex court.

On Friday, the SC proceedings were quite interesting. Initially, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi had agreed to Hamza remaining the CM till the by-elections as long as he did not overstep his powers to influence the July 17 results. However, PTI chief Imran Khan did not agree to this demand. In the end, he too acceded to Elahi’s suggestion and finally there was a consensus that Hamza would remain CM till the run-off. The PTI hailed the verdict as a success even though observers pointed out that Hamza was still the CM and the court had not declared his earlier election null and void. There has been some concern regarding what Senator Raza Rabbani has said is ingress into parliamentary affairs which is akin to politicians and lawmakers themselves surrendering their independence. We have recently seen growing debate within political and legal circles on the role of the court as a mediator instead of adjudicator on purely legal requirements.

For now, Punjab is at least not rudderless. There is a chief minister, and his cabinet is still in place. By-polls on 20 seats will be held as scheduled. These by-polls are extremely critical for both the PTI and the ruling PML-N. Whoever secures more seats will have more chances at the CM slot. The PML-N needs at least nine or 10 seats to secure the magic number of 186. The PTI, on the other hand, needs to clean-sweep to get its candidate elected to the CM slot. The PML-N is still the largest party in the province in numbers and it has the support of its coalition partners as well as independents. It will now be important for the party to win back the 20 seats it had lost in 2018 to either the PTI or independents who went on to join the PTI. The question though is: will the PML-N win in the Punjab by-polls given the rising inflation and price hikes ever since it came to power in the centre in April? We will find out in two weeks. Both parties sound confident. The Sharif government would want to retain Punjab given how important it is to maintain stability at the centre. July 17 will essentially seal the fate of the July 22 run-off.