ISLAMABAD (Agencies): Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial Tuesday said the decision to postpone polls in Punjab was penned in haste by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The CJP passed the remark after the Supreme Court resumed the hearing on Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) petition challenging the ECP decision on the Punjab elections.
During the hearing, Justice Jamal Mandokhail asked the ECP what would become of the date for the election if its decision for delaying the vote was revoked. The hearing was then postponed till 11:30am today (Wednsdeay). A day after a scathing dissenting note from Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail on the March 1 verdict on Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa polls, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial remarked that it was their “opinion” and had no link with the ongoing case.
CJP Bandial is heading the five-member larger bench hearing the plea. Apart from the CJP, the bench includes Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar, Justice Amin-Ud-Din Khan and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail. The Imran Khan-led party had challenged the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to defer the Punjab polls till October 8. The electoral body’s announcement came after financial and security authorities expressed their inability to support the electoral process.
Following this, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Haji Ghulam Ali also urged the electoral body to hold general elections on the same date (October 8) as the Punjab polls given the growing security threats from terror groups operating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions. At the outset of the hearing, CJP Bandial welcomed the newly appointed Attorney General for Pakistan Mansoor Usman Awan. While seeing “good friend” Farooq H Naek, the CJP remarked that the court would need the assistance of the senior lawyer on the matter.
The CJP remarked that the court does not want to drag this matter. He said that ECP’s jurisdiction as per yesterday’s order will be seen by the court, while the request of the ruling coalition parties to become a party in the case will be looked into later. “Rule of law and democracy are two sides of a same coin. There should be mutual tolerance, patience and law and order” CJP Bandial observed.
Meanwhile, Naek interjected and told the bench that they were also stakeholders in the case. At this, the CJP assured the senior lawyer that no one denied Naek’s importance but he believed that they shouldn’t engage in a legal controversy. He said that the parties had to decide the direction of the circumstances while the court had to keep the facts in view.
“On the March 1 verdict my stance is that the law empowers the president to give a date for the elections. If you want clarification on the March 1 decision then file a separate petition,” said the CJP. He added that the “simple question” in the case was whether the ECP could change the election date or not. “If ECP has the power then the matter will be resolved,” said the CJP. On the other hand, the attorney general contended that if the court decision was 4-3 then there was no order. He added that if it was not a court order then the president could not give the election date. “The March 1 decision should be decided first,” said the AGP.
At this, CJP Bandial remarked that right now the case was not about giving the election date but about the delay. He added that elections were necessary for a democracy. “Two honourable judges gave a decision. It’s the opinion of those two judges but is not related to the current case. Do not bypass a sensitive matter,” remarked the CJP. The AGP responded that the current petition was seeking the implementation of the court orders in the March 1 judgment. At this, CJP Bandial remarked that the bench members were there to review the questions raised in the petition. Apex court’s jurisdiction wasn’t limited to just the petition, he added.
On this point, AGP interjected and appealed for the formation of a full court on the matter. “It is a request that this is an important matter and if the bench deems it appropriate then a full court should be formed,” said the AGP. However, Justice Mandokhail remarked that the number of judges who favoured the March 1 ruling was an internal matter of the apex court. “Just tell if the Constitution requires conducting elections in 90 days or not, and whether the ECP can postpone the date of election,” he asked.
Upon hearing Justice Mandokhail, the CJP thanked the judge for clearing the matter. Meanwhile, PTI’s lawyer Barrister Ali Zafar maintained that every institution had to work while staying within its constitutional bounds. At this, CJP Bandial remarked that he expected the PTI’s senior leadership to have the same behaviour as expressed by the lawyer. He also asked the lawyer whether he talked to the senior party leaders. “PTI would have to be the first [one to speak] because they have approached the court,” the chief justice stated. He advised the parties of the case to avoid differences saying that there was violence, intolerance and an economic crisis in the country.
At this, Barrister Zafar maintained that these crises would intensify if the elections were delayed. CJP Bandial then remarked that it would order the government only if PTI takes the initiative. Moving on, Justice Khan asked if the 90-day period before the election could be shortened. At this, Justice Ahsan remarked that the ECP was bound to give the schedule for polls within 90 days.
Barrister Zafar maintained that the electoral watchdog couldn’t withdraw the order once given. “Unfortunately, no one has any doubt that elections now can’t be held in 90 days,” remarked Justice Mandokhail. He also wondered if there was a democratic way to resolve the issue. Justice Mandokhail lamented that no one cared about the Constitution in Pakistan anymore but elections must be held under any circumstances. “The question is, who has the authority to extend the duration of 90 days and if the assembly should be dissolved at a single person’s behest,” the justice added. PTI’s lawyer argued that the prime minister and chief minister were the elected representatives.
At this, Justice Mandokhail remarked that the assembly could be dissolved if the prime minister’s party moved a no-confidence motion against him. However, Barrister Ali Zafar contended that the assembly couldn’t be dissolved in case of a no-confidence motion. Justice Mandokhail observed that the Parliament should review the authority of a single person to dissolve the assembly. At this, Barrister Zafar said that the Parliament could debate over the authority of the PM and CM. “The Constitution doesn’t allow any delay in the fundamental right of election,” he maintained, adding that efforts to defer the polls were made in the recent past.
Zafar added that the ECP maintained that it couldn’t give a date, while the governor said it was his authority to give the polls date. On this point, Justice Ahsan remarked that the implementation of the apex court’s judgement had been done as the election schedule was issued. However, the question before the bench was whether the ECP had the authority to change the date given by the president. “Can the election commission delay [elections] beyond 90 days,” he asked. Meanwhile, CJP Bandial remarked that the Election Act’s Section 58 did not allow deferment of the polls.
At this, Barrister Zafar maintained that the ECP based its order on two clauses from the Constitution. Justice Mandokhail then interjected that the electoral watchdog had excused itself from fulfilling the constitutional duty while stating these reasons. “What would have happened if the ECP hadn’t given the date of October 8,” he asked. At this, Justice Ahsan remarked that the electoral body could have approached the president for changing the election date. “All administrative institutions are bound to cooperate with the ECP. Election commission can approach only if there are solid reasons,” he added. Barrister Zafar remarked: “The Article 220 of the Constitution binds all governments and institutions to cooperate with the ECP, but the electoral body made a decision after taking input from the institutions only”.
He urged the court to question the electoral watchdog why it did not use its constitutional powers. He argued that Article 5 of the Constitution would apply if the administrative institutions did not cooperate. The lawyer said that according to ECP, Article 254 gives the authority of deferring the polls. At this, Justice Mandokhail remarked that the date given by the election authority was already after 90 days period. Was the date after 90 days period correct, he asked.
Barrister Zafar said that the polls couldn’t be conducted within 90 days even if the court issued an order right now. At this, Justice Mandokhail remarked that the president had also given a date after the 90 days. “Article 254 can be invoked after the job was done but not before that,” he added. Moving on, Justice Ahsan observed: “In practice, if the election is not possible in 90 days, the court could issue an order”. However, Justice Akhtar remarked that if the conducting of elections were not possible, the Election Commission should have approached the court. He explained that the court could be approached for the polls on the same day if another assembly was dissolved before the date of the elections for an assembly.
“The election commission cannot automatically issue an order to postpone elections. If the Election Commission can postpone the election for 6 months, then it can do it for six years as well,” he observed. At this, Justice Mandokhail remarked: “The constitution is silent on who can move the elections ahead”. “Shouldn’t parliament amend the constitution?” he asked. It will be best if the Parliament amends it, the justice added. “The question is what will happen to the elections that are to be held until the amendment is made,” Justice Akhtar remarked. At this,
Barrister Zafar maintained that the elections could never be held if they consider the basis on which elections were postponed. Justice Akhtar then remarked that if it was a matter of funds, “how will the caretaker government provide the funds?”
“Will the problems present today not be there on October 8,” he asked.
At this, Barrister Zafar contended that the ECP had said in its order of March 22 that the funds had not been provided. He argued that the election commission had never requested funds. Justice Akhtar then remarked that he had read the premier’s statement in the newspaper. “The federal government says that Rs500 billion tax revenue had been collected till March,” he added. He said that it was surprising that the government was unable to spare Rs20 billion out of those Rs500 billion for the elections.
Moving on, Justice Ahsan observed that in practice, if the election is not possible in 90 days, the court could issue an order. However, Justice Akhtar remarked that if the conducting of elections were not possible, the Election Commission should have approached the court. He explained that the court could be approached for the polls on the same day if another assembly was dissolved before the date of the elections for an assembly.
“The election commission cannot automatically issue an order to postpone elections. If the Election Commission can postpone the election for 6 months, then it can do it for six years as well,” he observed. At this, Justice Mandokhail remarked: “The constitution is silent on who can move the elections ahead”.
“Shouldn’t parliament amend the constitution?” he asked. It will be best if the Parliament amends it, the justice added. “The question is what will happen to the elections that are to be held until the amendment is made,” Justice Akhtar remarked. At this, Barrister Zafar maintained that the elections could never be held if they consider the basis on which elections were postponed. Justice Akhtar then remarked that if it was a matter of funds, “how will the caretaker government provide them?”
“Will the problems present today not be there on October 8,” he asked. At this, Barrister Zafar contended that the ECP had said in its order of March 22 that the funds had not been provided. He argued that the election commission had never requested funds. Justice Akhtar then remarked that he had read the premier’s statement in the newspaper. “The federal government says that Rs500 billion tax revenue had been collected till March,” he added. He said that it was surprising that the government was unable to spare Rs20 billion out of those Rs500 billion for the elections.
“As per the ECP’s order, it would be difficult to provide funds,” said Barrister Zafar, quoting the finance secretary, and added the Finance Ministry did not altogether refuse to provide funds but said that it would be difficult for them to arrange this amount. Justice Akhtar remarked that if the funds were not available for the election now then how would they be available in the future, “which means that polls will never be held at all”. “How can a government secretary make such a fantastic statement?” questioned Justice Akhtar.
The collected tax goes to federal consolidated funds, he added. During the hearing, CJP Bandial suggested a cut in the judges’ salaries for the elections. “An entire budget is not needed for elections,” he added. “Our salaries can be cut for collecting Rs20 billion,” said the chief justice, adding that the government could save Rs20 billion by reducing expenses.
Senator Naek said that the expenditure of federal consolidated funds was spent with the Parliament’s approval. Justice Akhtar wondered how could the funds be issued if the assemblies stood dissolved. “In the current case, the National Assembly is present. The new assembly will approve the expenses,” said Naek. He added that the finance secretary’s statement could only be explained by the ECP.
“How can the finance secretary issue funds that are not approved,” asked Justice Mandokhail. Amid this debate, PTI’s lawyer contended that the issuance of funds was a technical issue. At this point, CJP Bandial remarked that the country was going through an economic crisis and it was a reality that could not be ignored.
“Sacrifice is necessary to deal with the crisis. The cost of the election can be accumulated by cutting 5% of salaries,” said the CJP. He added that in Turkey apart from the earthquake-hit areas elections were being held everywhere. On this point, Zafar interjected and remarked that the “Election Act allows the ECP to cancel polling where there is a problem; it cannot postpone the entire election”. “Elections can only be postponed by declaring emergency,” remarked CJP Bandial. He also asked if ECP’s decision recommended imposing an emergency.
“Absolutely not,” responded Zafar. The court then took a 30-minute break. Later, Justice Akhtar said that elections could be held anytime and the commission should remain prepared. “It is not the election commission’s job to run the government,” he added. Justice Bandial said that the ECP, according to the Constitution and law, has no authority to change the date of elections. “It is very clear that it is not the election commission’s authority to give the date of polls.” “Shouldn’t the election commission have approached the Supreme Court for delaying the elections?” Justice Akhtar asked.
In response, the attorney general said that the matter eventually comes to the court when there was a question of using constitutional authority. “A better answer to this question can be given by the election commission’s lawyer,” he said. The attorney general said that the ECP’s order had been challenged. The electoral authority’s counsel sought extra time from the court for additional documents. Justice Bandial refused to grant time till tomorrow. Justice Ahsan remarked that it was the responsibility of the federation to provide funds for the election.
“A supplementary grant can be issued under the Constitution,” Justice Akhtar said. Meanwhile, AGP Awan remarked that the matter was not of constitutional authority but that of the lack of resources. He added that the Defence Ministry had refused to provide army personnel because of the country’s security situation. “Is there a guarantee that the situation will improve in October?” Justice Akhtar asked. “The Election Commission may have thought that the term of all assemblies would complete in October,” the attorney general responded. Commenting on the reasons that could cause the polls to delay, the chief justice said that while travelling by train in Sindh, he saw that it was submerged in water. He added that “the train in Balochistan travels with the same speed as that of people on foot, while the rail route remains disconnected from Quetta”.
“Elections can be postponed where movement is difficult,” Justice Bandial said. The chief justice said that the court was examining the reasons for postponing polls for the first time. “The real situation is [understanding] how elections could be postponed for such a long time. Polls were only postponed for 40 days after Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom.” He added that the ECP’s offices were burned down in protest.
“There were protests across the country on the tragedy. There is need for political maturity for elections,” Justice Bandial said. Speaking about the issue of funds, the attorney general said that the matter was also brought to the Supreme Court in 1988. “The court filled the gap through its opinion on the presidential reference,” he said. “Should we understand that the nation is held hostage by terrorists?” Justice Jamal Mandokhail remarked.