April 21, 2023
ISLAMABAD – The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday adjourned the hearing of a petition seeking to hold general elections to all national and provincial assemblies simultaneously till next week (April 27) after being told that a meeting had been scheduled between the government and the PTI for April 26.
Earlier today, the top court had given the federal coalition and the PTI until 4pm to sit together and develop a consensus on elections in the country. At the same time, it also asserted that it would not go back on its order fixing May 14 as the date for elections to the Punjab Assembly.
The directives were issued by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justice Ijazul Ahsan and Justice Munib Akhtar.
During today’s hearing, the coalition parties told the court that a dialogue with the opposition was planned after Eid, but Justice Bandial instructed the government to hold talks today.
However, the proceedings did not resume at 4pm. Instead, Farooq H. Naek, who was representing the PPP, and Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan met with CJP Bandial in his chambers.
Around 5:30pm, Naek told reporters that the CJP had been informed that dialogue had been initiated with the PTI.
Meanwhile, AGP Awan said: “It was decided today to give each other some time.”
In the written order, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the court said: “Having heard the positive statements of [the] political leadership of the country representing all major political parties with respect to the simultaneous holding of general elections of the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies gives cause for optimism that they would agree to an election date sooner rather than later.”
The court also said that it was “impressed” to note that all political leaders had affirmed their fidelity to the Constitution which was “supreme and must be adhered to”.
“We are cognisant that if political dialogue extends to address all grievances, then it is likely to be a lengthy process and the correct forum for that is the political arena and political institutions. However, we did not find any reservations to the negotiations being centred solely on a one-point agenda, namely, consensual fixation of a date for holding of general elections of the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies which is a constitutional and legal question,” the order said.
It went on to say that it was important that such a result is reached “expeditiously” as the court had already fixed May 14 as the date for polls in Punjab. The SC said that the judgement “holds the field” and its ruling was, therefore, binding on all judicial and executive authorities in the country under Article 189 and Article 190 of the Constitution.
The court said the proposal for holding the first meeting of all political parties was “appreciated and welcomed by the court”.
It further said that today’s hearing was adjourned till 4pm and the AGP was directed to report the progress of talks between the political parties in chambers.
“Thereafter, the learned AGP along with Farooq H. Naek […] met the bench in chambers and apprised them of deliberations amongst the senior cabinet members of the government and their interaction with a senior officer bearer of the PTI.
“They submitted that a recess is being taken on account of Eidul Fitr holidays because several political leaders and party heads have already left or leaving Islamabad for their hometowns to celebrate Eidul Fitr. However, a meeting has been scheduled amongst the said leaders on April 26, 2023,” the order said, adding that it should be informed of the progress when the hearing resumed on April 27.
Fazl rejects talks with PTI
Immediately after the SC’s deadline for negotiations ended, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman — also the chairman of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) — strongly rejected the idea of talks with PTI chairman Imran Khan.
In a short press conference, he said that a man who was supposed to be shunned from Pakistan’s politics long ago was today being brought into the limelight by the top court.
“The man who dissolved the assemblies and brought Pakistan to this point today […] you want us to go and talk to him? No, we are not ready to accept this decision,” he said. “This is an entirely non-political procedure for us.”
“There was a time when we were told to speak with a gun to our head, now we have a hammer on us,” Fazl said, stressing that the SC and CJP were disrespecting politicians, parliament and the entire country.
He also urged the apex court to be accommodating, adding that “if you can be accommodating for Imran, you can do the same for us”.
Later, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addressed a press conference in Islamabad, where he stressed the importance of dialogue among political parties. At the same time, he also highlighted the factors that could hamper this process.
He said allies in the coalition government were of the view that elections should be held on the same day. Bilawal added that parties in the ruling coalition planned to hold a meeting after Eidul Fitr where they were to devise a strategy for taking the process of dialogue forward.
However, he continued, “I believe it would be difficult to reach a consensus within the coalition on two points.”
Elaborating on these points, Bilawal said: “Our allies believe, and I agree with them, that holding dialogue is the job of political parties. Therefore, it is [only] possible in parliament — the Senate. Talks outside parliament are not possible.
“So, I believe that reaching a consensus in the coalition on holding negotiations [through] any other institution would be difficult. Convincing coalition partners on holding talks with another institution playing the role of a [intermediary] will be difficult.”
Secondly, he continued, “No one can negotiate with a gun to their head. You cannot expect that negotiations will be successful with a gun to our heads.
“I don’t think I will be able to convince all of our coalition partners to agree to any dialogue with a gun to our heads, and even if they were to agree, I am pretty certain it will be difficult for the dialogue process to be successful with a gun to our heads.”
The foreign minister said the “gun” he was referring to was the “3-2 minority decision” of the apex court — the ruling that said elections should be held in Punjab and KP within 90 days — “that is forcibly being foisted upon us as a majority decision”.
Bilawal questioned how he would be able to convince the allied parties to negotiate until the order was suspended.
A number of political leaders, including Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar, PTI leaders Fawad Chaudhry and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, PML-N leaders Khawaja Saad Rafique and Ayaz Sadiq, PML-Q’s Tariq Bashir Cheema, MQM leader Sabir Hussain Qaimkhani, JI emir Sirajul Haq and others, attended the hearing today, which was held inside courtroom number 1.
At the outset of the proceeding, CJP Bandial lauded the efforts of JI’s Haq on holding a dialogue between the government and the opposition, saying that the court would also do its part in this “good deed”.
For his part, PTI’s Qureshi said that his party respected the courts and asserted that the country could only move forward by upholding the Constitution. “We are with the SC, let’s see what is the government’s stance,” he added.
At that, the petitioner’s counsel, Shah Khawar, informed the court that representatives of a number of political parties were present in the courtroom and suggested that each leader should be given a chance to speak.
The counsel also requested that elections be held simultaneously throughout the country.
Acknowledging the presence of the political leaders, the CJP expressed his gratitude and stated that the leadership was willing to address the problem at hand.
He cautioned that relying solely on court orders to find a solution could lead to complications but acknowledged that political parties working together could pave the way for a solution.
Justice Bandial noted that both the Ministry of Defence and the petitioner were calling for simultaneous elections across the country. He also mentioned that the attorney general had previously raised a similar point, which had unfortunately been subject to political obstruction.
The CJP noted that Naek, representing the PPP, had also expressed support for the same argument, but a boycott prevented progress.
The chief justice cited newspaper reports indicating that the PPP and PML-N leadership supported dialogue as a means of resolving the issue, at which Naek informed the court about the presence of Khawaja Saad Rafique, Qamar Zaman Kaira and Tariq Bashir Cheema, as well as MQM and BNP representatives.
He told the court that the ruling alliance believed that the 90-day period for elections had passed and that the court had already extended the date for polls twice.
Naek also stated that political parties had already started working together for the elections, with FM Bilawal meeting the JUI-F chief regarding the matter.
He informed the court that they would meet with the PTI to end the ongoing tensions, with the aim would be to create a political consensus. He said that the ruling coalition’s political dialogue would be completed immediately after Eid.
Following that, PML-N representative and Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique came to the rostrum and reiterated the PPP’s stance. He said that his party also wanted elections to be held simultaneously.
“We don’t want anarchy and unrest in the country,” he said, stressing that the PML-N believed in dialogue and wanted to derive solutions to political issues through negotiations.
Rafique also said that the PML-N had called a meeting of allies after Eid and was ready to talk to the opposition.
After Rafique, the representatives of other allied parties — MQM, BNP and PML-Q — told the court that they wanted elections to be held at the same time and supported dialogue.
The court then called PTI’s Qureshi to the rostrum. The PTI leader said that he had already presented his party’s perspective and emphasised that there were both political and constitutional aspects to consider.
He reiterated that the Constitution clearly dictated that elections must be held within 90 days of the assembly dissolution, saying that he was bound by the Constitution, not anyone’s wishes.
Qureshi commended the Supreme Court for upholding the Constitution and exercising restraint in this matter.
He also stressed the need for all political parties to work together to navigate the country’s political challenges, stating that the constitutional and democratic way out of the current crisis was through elections. Qureshi acknowledged that it was not easy for the PTI to quit the government as the aftermath was now apparent to everyone.
The PTI leader further highlighted that the SC had instructed the government to provide funds for polls by April 17 but “nothing happened on that”. He suggested that the federal coalition should present a proposal in line with the Constitution, which the PTI could then review.
Qureshi questioned whether the government wanted to run the country through parliamentary resolutions, emphasising that the PTI was committed to upholding the Constitution and avoiding anarchy. Talking about negotiations with the government, the PTI leader expressed support for a dialogue that remained within the bounds of the Constitution.
Here, PML-N’s Rafique interjected and said that the court should not be turned into a “debating club” and that these matters could be discussed during negotiations. “We are not willing to sit [in the government] for a day more than the constitutional requirement,” he added.
Meanwhile, AML chief Sheikh Rashid expressed concerns that negotiations between the government and the opposition could prolong beyond Eidul Azha.
In his statement before the court, JI chief Haq emphasised that the Constitution was created as a result of consensus and could serve as a tool for saving the country.
Haq also mentioned that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States had weakened over time as the three countries were not taking interest in Pakistan anymore. He cited the example of Nelson Mandela, with whom dialogues were held after three decades of fighting, to highlight the importance of communication.
He added that Pakistan was created as a result of democratic struggle, not a military dictatorship. He said the dissolution of both Punjab and KP assemblies has surprised the nation and insisted that the JI had not aligned itself with either the PTI or the PDM.
Haq told the court that infighting between political parties affected the people rather than the politicians and emphasised that all the institutions, including political parties and the government, must remain independent.
He clarified that he did not contact the government or the PTI individually, clarifying that the decision was taken by his party after consultation.
Recalling his meetings with the PTI chief and the prime minister, the JI chief said he had informed the leaders that he could not spend the rest of his life serving under military rule. According to Haq, Imran agreed with him, saying that he did not want a military rule to be imposed in the country.
He then insisted that elections were the only way out of the current crisis and should be held after Eidul Azha.
At one point during the hearing, the discussion touched on the ECP’s ability to extend election dates. The CJP noted that under Article 254 of the Constitution, the ECP was not authorised to extend election dates. He emphasised that the court was bound by the Constitution and the law and that the JI, PML-N, and PPP had made attempts to extend the election dates.
The CJP urged political leaders to uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and hold a two-way dialogue to resolve the issue.
CJP Bandial said that an in-camera briefing of parliament was held, but the court had already given its verdict by then. He said that no parliamentarian would want to go against the court order and urged party leaders to sit down and hold discussions to resolve the issue before Eid.
The CJP also suggested that Eidul Azha would fall in July and elections across the country could be held after that.
He went on to say that the country’s system worked under the Constitution. “If we do not follow it, then ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ will come. In our verdict [to hold elections] on May 14, we saw a reasoning that the [election] commission cannot change the date.
“Some misunderstandings took place. Everyone’s stance is that the elections are held on the same day. This court cannot deliberate upon these practical things. We are bound by the Constitution and law,” the top court’s judge said.
CJP Bandial lauded the reconciliation efforts initiated by the JI recently and also appreciated the PPP’s stance of “keeping the door for talks open”.
“Bilawal Bhutto has made good efforts. It is expected that Maulana Fazlur Rehman will also show some flexibility.”
He then suggested that the political parties sat down today instead of waiting till after Eid.
“If you think you can change the [election] schedule, then do it,” Justice Akhtar told the ECP and directed the political parties to inform the court regarding what was decided in the talks. “The court will not take back its verdict of [holding elections on] May 14,” he maintained.
CJP Bandial also said that a court order could not be ignored. “Taking it back is not a joke. There is a procedure to dismiss a court order — those 30 days have also passed,” he added.
The hearing was subsequently adjourned till 4pm.
The petition, filed by citizen Sardar Kashif Khan, said that in the prevailing situation in Pakistan, it was best to hold general elections to all the assemblies at the same time, instead of in a piecemeal manner.
“The holding of general elections for the National Assembly and all the four provinces would mean that all general elections being held simultaneously would be under caretaker governments, which would ensure that the elections are carried out honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with the law,” it said.
The plea highlighted that holding all the elections together would result in “savings of billions of rupees” and allow for poll funds to be duly budgeted in FY2024.
“The simultaneous holding of elections will also require the availability of police and armed forces only once as opposed to multiple times, allowing them to devote more time to their principal duties. It will also allow law enforcement agencies and armed forces to immediately focus on improving law and order situation in the lead up to the combined general elections.”
It also highlighted that until the digital census, underway across the country, would also be completed.
Furthermore, the petition pointed out that even the PTI had now “conceded” that it would be in the best interest to hold general elections at the same time.
Executive-judiciary impasse on polls
Earlier this month, the SC had directed the government to provide Rs21 billion to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to conduct elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by April 10, and directed the electoral body to provide a report on whether or not the government complied with the order on April 11.
However, the government referred the matter to Parliament which defied the court’s orders and refused to issue the funds.
Last week, the electoral watchdog had submitted a report to the Supreme Court in a sealed envelope. Though the contents of the report are not known, a source privy to the information told Dawn that the one-page report informed the apex court about the government’s reluctance to issue the Rs21bn needed for the purpose.
Subsequently, the court had directed the SBP to release funds worth Rs21bn for elections from Account No I — a principal component of the Federal Consolidated Fund 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 on Monday allocated the funds and sought the finance ministry’s nod to release the amount.
The federal cabinet’s approval was required to release the amount from the FCF, while the government has to get the National Assembly’s approval for its release. But the same day, the coalition government managed through the NA the rejection of its own demand for the provision of Rs21bn as a supplementary grant to the ECP for holding polls in the two provinces.
On Tuesday, the ECP, defence ministry and finance ministry submitted their respective reports in court.
The ECP report said that the staggering of elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was not feasible since it involved significant expenditures compared to holding of polls on the same day.
In its report, the defence ministry highlighted the need of holding the elections on the same day given the heightened security situation in the country. It also said that the armed forces would be able to carry out election duties by early October.
On the other hand, the finance ministry said that in the wake of the rejection on part of the National Assembly to a government-sponsored motion to grant Rs21bn to the federal government for meeting expenditures, other than charged, during the financial year ending June 30, 2023, in respect of the ECP for holding the elections in Punjab and KP, it was difficult to sanction the release of the funds.