July 18, 2022
ISLAMABAD – Punjab is once again at the centre of the political limelight. The province has seen a long-drawn-out battle over its chief minister which may finally be coming to an end. Or is it?
It all started from the Centre and the joint opposition’s no-confidence motion against then-prime minister Imran Khan.
Not content with just Imran, the then-opposition turned its guns towards Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar.
When Buzdar resigned, the PTI announced its ally PML-Q’s Chaudhry Parvez Elahi as its candidate for the top office. It also appointed a new governor, party loyalist Omer Sarfraz Cheema.
However, the PTI’s plans hit a snag, or more precisely, 25 disgruntled MPAs.
These disgruntled MPAs-turned-defectors dealt a fatal blow (or so it seemed at the time) to the PTI and instead voted for Hamza Shehbaz in the election for the chief minister.
The PTI cried foul and approached the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and asked it to disqualify the dissident lawmakers under Article 63-A of the Constitution. Meanwhile, the governor kept delaying Hamza’s oath-taking despite court orders.
On April 30, after a third order by the Lahore High Court (LHC), Hamza finally took oath as the Punjab chief minister. Notably, his oath was administered by National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and not by the-then Punjab governor.
Hamza’s oath was, subsequently, challenged by both the PTI and its ally PML-Q in the LHC.
The constitutional Article at the centre of it all
During this tumultuous time, the Supreme Court announced its decision on a presidential reference seeking its opinion on Article 63-A.
The article, on which the PTI’s argument of not counting defectors’ votes in the CM election was based, states that a parliamentarian can be disqualified on grounds of defection if he “votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction issued by the parliamentary party to which he belongs, in relation to election of the prime minister or chief minister; or a vote of confidence or a vote of no-confidence; or a money bill or a Constitution (amendment) bill”.
The Article says that the party head has to declare in writing that the MNA in question has defected but before making the declaration, the party head will “provide such member with an opportunity to show cause as to why such declaration may not be made against him”.
After giving the member a chance to explain their reasons, the party head will forward the declaration to the speaker, who will forward it to the chief election commissioner (CEC). The CEC will then have 30 days to confirm the declaration. If confirmed by the CEC, the member “shall cease to be a member of the House and his seat shall become vacant”.
The Supreme Court, in a 3-2 verdict, stated that the vote of any member of a parliamentary party in a House “that is cast contrary to any direction issued by the latter in terms of para (b) of clause (1) of Article 63-A cannot be counted and must be disregarded, and this is so regardless of whether the party head, subsequent to such vote, proceeds to take, or refrains from taking, action that would result in a declaration of defection”.
Days later, the ECP ruled that the 25 dissident PTI MPAs had defected from the party, and de-seated them.
“We are of the view that the casting of votes by the respondent[s] in favour of opposing candidate is a serious issue and worst form of betrayal of the electorate and party’s policy …
“We have arrived at the conclusion that participation of the respondents in the election of chief minister of Punjab and casting their votes in favour of opposing candidate has established the factum of defection on the basis of the subject declarations against all the respondents,” the ECP said in its verdict.
“The declarations are confirmed and the respondents cease to be members of Punjab Assembly and their seats become vacant.”
The votes of the 25 PTI dissidents had been instrumental in helping Hamza get over the line; he received a total of 197 votes while 186 votes are required for a simple majority. Since these 25 lawmakers were no longer members of the House, Hamza thus, lost his majority.
Five of the defecting MPAs were nominated on reserved seats. The ECP, after initially staying the notification but then bowing to an LHC order, notified five new legislators from the PTI.
These were Habkook Rafique Babbo and Samuel Yaqoob on the reserved seats for non-Muslims; and Batool Zain, Saira Raza and Fouzia Abbas Naseem on the seats for women.
The ECP announced that by-polls on the remaining 20 general seats would be held on July 17.
Two courts and a re-election
Separately, the LHC, while ruling on the PTI and PML-Q’s pleas, ordered a recount of votes cast in the April 16 election for the Punjab chief minister after excluding 25 votes of defecting PTI MPAs, and in case a candidate fails to secure a majority, go for a run-off poll where a contender requires a majority vote of the members present in the House.
During the April 16 election, Hamza had bagged 197 votes, including 25 from PTI dissidents, four from independents, and one from the lone Rah-i-Haq Party MPA. Five rebel PML-N lawmakers had abstained from voting in favour of Hamza.
The magic number required to show a majority in the 371-strong house is 186.
In light of the LHC verdict, once a recounting of the votes happens, Hamza’s tally will be trimmed to 172 votes after the 25 votes by PTI dissident lawmakers are excluded.
In that case, as per the high court’s order, because Hamza lost his majority, re-election would take place under Article 130(4) of the Constitution, which means that in this second round of voting, a member does not need to show support of a majority (186 votes) but simply requires more votes than any other candidate to be elected the chief minister.
The PTI, still not satisfied, approached the Supreme Court, which said that the LHC order of recounting votes and conducting a second election, if necessary, would now take place on July 22, five days after the by-polls and Hamza would remain in office till then.
The by-polls became even more important after the apex court’s decision — their results will determine whether Hamza will remain the chief minister or the PTI will regain control of the country’s largest province.
The current breakdown of each party’s seats in the Punjab Assembly can be seen in the chart below.
As matters stand, Hamza has 170 votes from the PML-N and the PPP while Elahi has 173 votes from the PTI and the PML-Q. Separately, there are five more votes from independent lawmakers.
One of the PML-N’s disgruntled MPAs, Faisal Khan Niazi from PP-209 Khanewal, resigned in May. A Punjab Assembly notification, dated July 7, states that the resignation has been accepted and his seat has become vacant. Late last night, another MPA of the PML-N, Mian Jalil Sharaqpuri submitted his resignation to speaker Parvez Elahi.
Meanwhile, the status of another PML-N MPA Kashif Mehmood from PP-241 Bahawalnagar is uncertain. He was disqualified by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) in 2020 but has not yet been denotified by the ECP.
The PTI approached the high court earlier this week and sought directions for the MPA to be denotified. The IHC will hear the matter again on July 20.
If the IHC does not decide the matter by July 22, his vote may still be counted in the CM election. However, the PTI is likely to oppose this on the basis of his disqualification by the IHC.
Who is contesting?
The 20 constituencies in which the by-polls are being held are:
The only two parties that have fielded candidates in every constituency are the PML-N and the PTI. The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has also fielded a large number of candidates.
On the other hand, the PPP has not nominated any candidate after announcing its support for PML-N in the upcoming by-polls.
A number of the de-seated PTI lawmakers are now standing for the elections on PML-N tickets this time around, including Nazir Ahmad Chohan, Raja Sagheer Ahmad, Saeed Akbar Khan, Mohammad Amin Zulqarnain, Malik Nauman Ahmad Langrial, Zawar Hussain Warraich, Nazir Ahmed Khan and Faisal Hayat.
Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s son, Makhdoom Zain Hussain Qureshi, is also contesting from the Multan constituency.
How will the by-polls affect the Punjab govt?
Due to the late-night resignation of Jalil Sharaqpuri, Hamza currently appears to enjoy the support of 174 MPAs, comprising 162 MPAs from his own party, seven PPP MPAs, four independent legislators and the lawmaker from Bahawalnagar.
Meanwhile, Elahi has improved his tally from 168 in the April 16 contest to 173 after the Election Commission, as per LHC orders, notified five PTI MPAs against reserved seats from the priority list the party submitted before the 2018 general elections. The court had turned down the PML-N’s appeal for re-calculating the reserved seats after excluding the 20 de-seated PTI MPAs from the PTI’s numerical strength.
However, Deputy Speaker Dost Muhammad Mazari, who was elected on a PTI ticket, would not be able to vote as he is likely to preside over the session to elect the new CM. That leaves Elahi with effective support 172 MPAs.
Thus, in the by-polls today, if the PTI manages to grab at least 12 of the 20 seats, it would boost Elahi’s tally to 184, and assuming that the other eight seats are won by the PML-N, Hamza’s tally would then reach 182, thus giving Elahi the edge in the upcoming CM’s election.
However, for Hamza to remain the CM, he only needs 10 of the 20 seats on offer, as managing that would boost his tally to 184 and restrict PTI to a maximum of 182.
It is to be noted that the vote of independent MPA Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, formerly of the PML-N, remain unaccounted for in the above equation as he remains unaligned to date. If he were to pick a side, it could potentially prove pivotal and upset the entire equation.