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SC resumes hearing ECP’s plea seeking review of Punjab polls order

SC resumes hearing ECP’s plea seeking review of Punjab polls order

The Supreme Court (SC) has begun hearing the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) plea asking the top court to revisit its April 4 order of holding elections to the Punjab Assembly on May 14.

A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justices Ijazul Ahsan and Munib Akhtar is conducting the proceedings.

During the previous hearing, the top judge had appreciated the ECP and the federal government for taking the current legal proceedings on the holding of May 14 polls seriously, unlike in the past when they objected to what constitutes the majority decision and demanded the formation of full court on the matter.

On the other hand, the PTI had pleaded before the court that the review petition seeking to revisit the judgment of April 4 was liable to be dismissed.

In a una­n­imous judgment on April 4, the bench had quashed the electoral body’s decision to extend the date for polls in the province from April 10 to Oct 8 and fixed May 14 as the new date.

It had also directed the federal government to release Rs21 billion for elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and to provide a security plan to the ECP regarding the polls. Moreover, the court had instructed relevant authorities to keep it in the loop.

However, in reports submitted to the apex court in subsequent days, the ECP had said the ruling coalition was reluctant in releasing the funds.

It had contended that staggering polls by holding them in Punjab and KP separately, before elsewhere, was not feasible since it would incur more expenses compared to holding the exercise on one day. It had further said that an already depleted security apparatus would require weeks in advance for its mobilisation.

On May 3, with fewer than two weeks to the May 14 election date, the election commission had filed its plea seeking a review of the court’s April 4 order.

The review petition, filed through Advocate Sajeel Shehryar Swati, was submitted a day after the government and PTI developed a consensus on holding elections across the country on the same day. Both parties, however, had failed to agree on a date for the elections.

The deadlock over the holding of elections in two provinces arose after the PTI dissolved its governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab in January.

According to the Constitution, once an assembly is dissolved prior to completing its term, general elections for the house are to be held within 90 days from the date of dissolution.

The crisis began when despite the passage of almost 40 days since the assemblies were dissolved, the ECP and governors in both provinces did not give a date for polls. During this time, the Lahore High Court (LHC) had ordered the holding of polls in Punjab within the constitutionally stipulated timeframe but both the ECP and the governor filed an intra-court appeal, asking for clarity on who was supposed to finalise the date for polling.

The Peshawar High Court, on the other hand, was also hearing a petition asking for polls to be held in KP within the stipulated timeframe.

On Feb 22, the Supreme Court sprang into action, taking suo motu notice of the delay in announcing elections in the two provinces.

This began a long and dramatic chain of events — during which clear divisions and conflicts became visible within judges of the country’s top court — that eventually ended with the three-member bench’s verdict on April 4, ordering polls in Punjab to be held on May 14 and directing the federal government to release Rs21 billion for the exercise.

The top court did not give a decision on polls in KP, asking the petitioners to approach the Peshawar High Court on the matter.

However, despite the SC’s order on Punjab polls, the government failed to release the funds and to date maintains that elections to the National Assembly and all provincial assemblies be held on the same day.

On April 10 — the initial deadline set by the top court for the release of funds — Finance Minister Ishaq Dar tabled a money bill in the NA, seeking funds for conducting polls in Punjab and KP. The bill, titled Charged Sums for General Election (Provincial Assemblies of the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) Bill 2023, was subsequently rejected by the NA.

Prior to that, the government-dominated standing committees of both Houses of Parliament also rejected the bill in their separate meetings.

The matter was then again taken up by the apex court, which directed the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) to provide funds to the ECP for Punjab and KP polls by April 17.

The court directed the SBP to release funds worth Rs21bn for elections from Account No I — a principal component of the Federal Cons­olidated Fund (FCF) worth Rs1.39 trillion — and send an “appropriate communication” to this effect to the finance ministry by April 17.

Following the top court’s orders, the central bank allocated the funds and sought the finance ministry’s nod to release the amount to the ECP. But, the government’s approval was required to release the amount from the FCF while the government said it had to get the National Assembly’s approval for its release.

Subsequently, on April 17, the coalition government managed through the NA yet another rejection of its own demand for the provision of Rs21bn as a supplementary grant to the ECP for holding polls in the two provinces — defying the SC’s third directive for the release of funds for the purpose.

A day later the SC, while hearing a defence ministry plea for same-day polls, warned the government of “serious consequences” if it failed to release the funds required for conducting polls in Punjab and KP. It had also said that since the office of the prime minister had primacy, the premier “must enjoy the confidence of the majority of the NA at all times.”

“It follows from the foregoing (and this is an important constitutional convention) that the government of the day must be able to secure the passage of all financial measures that it submits before the NA. This would be certainly true for a financial measure of constitutional importance,” the order said, adding that when viewed from this perspective, the NA’s rejection of the demand to release poll funds held “serious constitutional implications”.

On April 26, National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf — to convey the “sentiments and thoughts” of members of the House about the court’s orders on elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — wrote a letter to CJP in which he urged the higher judiciary to “exercise restraint” and respect parliament’s legislative domain.

A day later, the SC granted temporary respite to the country’s main political parties and gave them time to hold dialogue on elections.

The talks between the PTI and the government were aimed at developing a consensus on a date for elections in one go across the country. After three rounds of talks, Ishaq Dar — who was leading the government side — told reporters on May 2 that both sides had agreed to hold elections to the national and provincial assemblies on a single date under the watch of caretaker setups, but it had yet to be decided what that date would be.

But while the finance minister and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani claimed positive headway in the sitting, with both sides showing flexibility, PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi regretted that no decision could be taken on “practicable proposals” put forward by his party.

Subsequently, the PTI told the SC in a report that no solution could be arrived at and asked it to implement its order for holding polls in Punjab on May 14.

In the four-page report, submitted a day after the two sides concluded the make-or-break round of the much-awaited negotiations on polls, the PTI told the top court that “in spite of the best efforts of parties, no solution within the Constitution” was found.

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