Hurting democracy for petty gains

A tug of war between top constitutional offices in pursuit of political goals has exposed the frailty of the democratic set up

Hurting democracy for petty gains


emocracy and the Federation have suffered in the two-month tug of war in the Punjab between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the coalition that has replaced its governments in Islamabad and Lahore.

The frailty of the democratic setup lay exposed after those holding top constitutional offices sought blatantly to exploit the letter of the law in pursuit of partisan aims without regard to the spirit of the constitution. The crisis was further aggravated when the superior judiciary interpreted constitutional provisions in a way that many jurists found perplexing.

“The blame cannot be assigned to a few individuals. Entire party leaderships on both sides backed their leaders in a mad tug of war. The largest province of the country remained government-less for over two months,” says political analyst Gauhar Butt. Those holding important constitutional posts, he says, made their political ambitions the top priority.

“Had the crisis continued into the first week of June, the presentation of the budget might have been jeopardised. Even the day to day working of the government might have been halted,” says Qamar Bhatti, the former Punjab Union of Journalists president.

“Above all, the deadlock appeared to be an invitation to ‘anti-democratic’ elements to overthrow the democratic set up,” says journalist Faizan Bangash.

It all began after the PTI threatened its dissident MPAs, who had expressed their intention to vote against the party nominee in the election to replace Chief Minister Usman Buzdar after he had resigned from his office. The party had sought to de-seat them even before they had cast the impugned vote.

Meanwhile, the post of Punjab governor fell vacant after the incumbent, Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, was removed over disagreement with PTI chief Imran Khan.

Deputy Speaker Sardar Dost Muhammad Mazari chaired the assembly session for electing the new chief minister. Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and leader of the opposition Hamza Shahbaz were contesting the coveted post. Seeing imminent defeat, Elahi boycotted the session, accusing the deputy speaker of allowing strangers into the house to steal the election. Hamza Shahbaz was declared the chief minister-elect.

The crisis deepened when Governor Omar Sarfraz Cheema, a veteran PTI leader, refused to administer oath to the new CM. In this, he was supported by President Dr Arif Alvi, who also withheld approval of summaries by the prime minister for Cheema’s removal and the appointment his successor. In the end, the High Court ordered the National Assembly Speaker to administer the oath to Hamza Shahbaz.

Hamza Shahbaz remained ineffective as he could not form a cabinet in the presence of a hostile governor.

Cheema told the media meanwhile that only the president could remove him and that he remained governor even after the federal government issued the notification of his removal.

Speaker Elahi was asked take charge as acting governor but refused to oblige, fearing that Deputy Speaker Mazari would become acting speaker and could then call a session to hold voting on the no confidence motion pending against him.

The swearing in of Baleegh ur Rehman as the new Punjab governor after the two-month roller coaster is expected to bring some order in the Punjab.

“President Alvi shouldn’t have acted the way he did. Showing allegiance to Imran Khan rather than the constitution was conduct unbecoming his august office,” says Ataullah Tarar, a minister-designate. “In the end, the president had to bow down before the constitution. He should have done it with dignity.”

In the meantime, the Supreme Court ruled that votes cast by lawmakers against party directions in the four scenarios mentioned in Article 63A cannot be counted. The Election Commission of Pakistan then ruled that the 25 PTI lawmakers who had voted in favour of PML-N’s Hamza Shahbaz as the Punjab chief minister stood de-seated.

Some experts have said that together the two rulings have effectively rendered Article 63A ineffective. Before the Supreme Court identified Article 17 as the ‘spirit’ of Article 63A, the law did not indicate that a defector’s vote would not be counted. “Article 63A allowed legislators to act according to their conscience and principles, even deviate from their party line, in matters of national importance,” says Hasan Murtaza, the senior provincial minister.

The Supreme Court judgement pushed the Punjab government into deeper crises. Since then constitutional lawyers have voiced two conflicting opinions. While some say that Hamza Sharif ceased to be chief minister after losing the vote of 25 dissident PTI lawmakers, others are of the view that his status remains intact until a court makes a ruling in this regard.

Meanwhile, Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi convened a session of the assembly and disposed of the no-confidence motion against him.

All eyes then came to rest on the five reserve seats vacated by the PTI dissidents.

Had Omar Sarfaraz Cheema, who moved the Islamabad High Court against his removal by the government, been restored to the office, he could have asked Hamza Shahbaz to take a vote of confidence. Another way to removed Hamza is through a no-confidence motion in the house.

The de-seating of PTI dissidents has also increased the importance of independents like Jugnoo Mohsin, Bilawal Warraich, Qasim Langah and Ahmed Ali Aulakh.

The allocation of reserve seats and by-election results seems to hold the balance. This could be a nail-biting finish for both Hamza Shahbaz and Parvez Elahi.

The writer is a senior political reporter at The News International

Hurting democracy for petty gains