ISLAMABAD, July 24: The Supreme Court ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan on Wednesday to hold the presidential election on July 30, instead of Aug 6, as sought by the federal government in a petition filed in the court.
Though the ruling PML-N clinched its preferred election date in a single hearing, the court’s decision triggered criticism from certain quarters.
The petition was filed by leader of the house in the Senate Raja Zafarul Haq through Mohammad Ashraf Gujjar on Tuesday, along with an application seeking early hearing of the matter.
The petitioner was present in the Courtroom 1 when the case was taken up by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The court asked ECP’s Additional Secretary Sher Afgan to seek instructions from the commission if it could hold the election on the date suggested by the petitioner.
When the bench assembled after the half an hour, Mr Afgan informed it that the ECP felt that it needed three clear days between the last day for withdrawal of nomination papers by candidates and the polling date to complete necessary arrangements. He assured the court that the commission would comply with whatever order it issued.
After getting the assurance the court issued the order for a change in the schedule.
The reaction to the verdict was immediate and critical.
Pakistan Bar Council vice-chairman Qalbe Hassan said the apex court should not have intervened in the ECP domain and let the commission settle the matter.
He was of the opinion that the ECP had rightly set Aug 6 as polling date since Article 41(4) of constitution explicitly suggested that the election to the office of the president should be held not earlier than 60 days and not later than 30 days before the expiry of five-year term of incumbent president.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s tenure will end on Sept 8.
“It’s like dictating the ECP in the open court,” Mr Hassan said.
Former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association retired Justice Tariq Mehmood said the verdict was expected. He said a constitutional body like the ECP which had the prime responsibility of holding elections surrendered or abdicated its authority. It will encourage other institutions to fill the space.
Another senior counsel said on the condition of anonymity that the apex court should have heard other political parties contesting the presidential election by issuing notices to them, instead of deciding the matter in the first hearing.
But senior counsel Mohammad Ikram Chaudhry was of the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the order since no constitutional provision had been violated.
In its judgment, the court observed that holding election to the office of the president was one of the most important constitutional activities which had to be undertaken by the ECP. “Therefore, it is the duty of the ECP to facilitate all the voters and electors and enable them to exercise their right of franchise.”
The court ordered the ECP to change the election schedule: filing of nomination papers on July 24, their scrutiny on July 26, withdrawal of candidature up to 12 noon on July 27, publication of the final list of candidates at 5pm on July 27 and the polling on July 30.
In his petition, Raja Zafarul Haq argued that polling date fell in the last 10 days of Ramazan which carried a lot of importance for Muslims. A large number of lawmakers are planning to observe Aitekaf in the country or in Makkah and Madina and they will not be able to cast their vote on Aug 6. Many of them may also be in Saudi Arabia to perform Umra during that period.
He said Aug 6 would also be close to Eidul Fitr and many lawmakers would like to proceed to their hometowns. He argued that the fundamental rights of lawmakers would be infringed if the presidential poll was held on Aug 6 because they would not be able to participate in the election in view of their spiritual and religious engagements in the last 10 days of Ramazan.
The petition said the impugned schedule violated the fundamental rights of the petitioner as well as other parliamentarians because if they opted to exercise their voting right they would have to give up their spiritual and religious plans.