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Updated February 22, 2018


ISLAMABAD: Politics is said to be the art of impossible. And when it comes to Pakistan, it’d be a blunder to write off a popular leader — no matter how controversial he or she is — because of one incident — for instance a military takeover or a judicial order like the latest verdict.

If one was to go by Nawaz Sharif’s aggressive political posturing of the last few months, especially since he was removed from the office of the prime minister through a Supreme Court order, it’s difficult to imagine he would make amends in his style and tactics following the latest verdict. In fact, all indications are that he may become even more aggressive in his campaign to vindicate himself through public support.

This may remain his policy as those close to him say he believes that he has nothing more to lose after a series of court decisions and the vilification campaign which, according to him, is aimed at eliminating the Sharif family from national politics.

Sharif may still make a comeback if an expected SC ruling specifies period of disqualification

However, when it comes to parliamentary politics, it may not be as simple. Experts say the former prime minister now has only one option available for his political survival — wait for the Supreme Court decision in the petitions seeking determination of period of lawmakers’ disqualification under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution.

This is the only choice Mr Sharif legally and constitutionally has at the moment for playing a role in parliamentary politics, despite the fact that he has refused to become a party in the disqualification case, according to political and legal experts.

The five-member SC bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar has completed hearing of a set of appeals involving, among other constitutional questions, the interpretation of Article 62(1)(f) to determine the period of disqualification of a member of parliament, and its verdict is awaited.

The judgement will not only decide the political future of Mr Sharif and former secretary general of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Jahangir Tareen, but also of a number of other lawmakers who had been previously disqualified on various grounds.

The verdict will also help end the controversy once and for all over the quantum of punishment by answering whether the disqualification of lawmakers should be for life or a specific period.

Last time the case was taken up in 2016 when Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali was chief justice. During one of the hearings, Justice Jamali had wondered how could anyone be disqualified forever on the basis of Articles 62 and 63, saying the people could reform themselves to be qualified under the same constitutional provisions after being disqualified at some point of time.

Legal observers say the Supreme Court has handed down different verdicts on the issue of disqualification of legislators, like in the case of Iftikhar Ahmed Cheema, the MNA from the NA-101 constituency, who was de-seated in 2015 for concealing assets. Subsequently, he contested the by-election and regained his seat.

But in the case of Rae Hassan Nawaz, the apex court disqualified him under Article 62(1)(f). Likewise, the court allowed Jamshaid Dasti to contest the election, but disqualified Rizwan Gill, Samina Khawar Hayat and Amir Yar, under the same constitutional provision.

Surprisingly for Mr Sharif’s opponents, there is no panic within the ranks of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) after the removal of their party president as they say that the decision is exactly “as per their expectation” and secondly because they had previously passed through a phase worst than the present one when the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf had not only removed Mr Sharif from the PM’s office, but had also sent him on forced exile.

“If the party can survive that time and stage a comeback, then they need not worry at a time when they are in the government at the centre as well as in Punjab,” said a PML-N office-bearer, when asked about the possible options available to the party after the SC’s latest adverse verdict against them.

The only concern for the PML-N is the fate of the coming Senate elections after which the party is expected to become the single largest party in the upper house of the Parliament -- a position the party was enjoying prior to the ouster of its government in October 1999 military coup.

Though, the legal experts – including those belonging to the parties which had challenged the Elections Act 2017 before the Supreme Court -- believe that the verdict should not cause a delay in the Senate elections, there are fears in some PML-N circles that “those playing games against the party” might have plans to stop the party from becoming a majority party in the Senate and to derail the democratic process.

“Yes, we are not worried about the party or Nawaz Sharif, but we are worried about the country and democracy,” said PML-N information secretary and Federal Minister for Climate Change Mushahidullah Khan. Recalling that there had been reports in the media and political circles for the past few months that the Senate elections might not be held in time, he said the party now had serious concern over it after the latest verdict. Similarly, he said, they had heard the people questioning the validity of the by-elections, including the one held in Lodhran, after the SC decision.

“As far as this decision is concerned, we welcome it because it will help us get a two-third majority in the coming general elections,” said Mr Khan confidently.

Legal experts agree that the Supreme Court’s verdict is ambiguous about the Senate elections and the court’s specific directive to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) “to remove the name of Nawaz Sharif as president/party head of the PML-N from all relevant record(s)” needs further interpretation in terms of the validity of the nomination papers of the PML-N candidates for the Senate polls.

According to veteran lawyer and former senator S.M. Zafar, the ball is now in the ECP’s court. Admitting that there was an “ambiguity” in the apex court’s verdict, he suggested that the ECP should announce a fresh schedule for the Senate elections giving more time to the parties to select candidates.

In Mr Zafar’s opinion, nomination papers of the PML-N candidates are still valid and they can now contest the elections independently.

“I don’t see any disastrous situation and pray that the Senate elections are held in time,” said Mr Zafar.

Similarly, two former Senate chairmen belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party which had challenged the provisions of the Elections Act 2017 that allowed a disqualified person to head a political party -- Nayyar Bokhari and Farooq Naek -- are also of the opinion that it is now up to the ECP to decide the fate of the PML-N candidates. They both said that the ECP should provide an equal opportunity to all the parties and candidates to run for the Senate elections.

Mr Naek explained that the nomination papers of a candidate contained only the signatures of the candidate, a proposer and a seconder who should be the voters. However, he said, in case a candidate was associated with a party and if he mentioned the name of the party in the given column in the nomination paper, then he or she was required to submit a certificate signed by the president to this effect.

Mr Naek, who had also served as law minister in the previous PPP government, said the ECP now had the option to treat the PML-N candidates as independent candidates or in the light of the judgement, it could issue a new election schedule. For this purpose, he believed that the ECP had the sufficient time as the elections were still 10 days away.

Another senior lawyer, Kamran Murtaza, who himself is a candidate in the Senate elections from Balochistan on the JUI-F ticket, is of the same opinion that the court’s verdict cannot disturb the Senate polls. He said any effort to delay the Senate polls must be resisted by all the parties.

Mr Murtaza, whose party is a coalition partner of the PML-N at the centre, said that he personally did not agree with the SC verdict, explaining that Article 17, which provided liberty to the people to associate with a political party or form a political party was an independent article and had no link to Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution dealing with qualification and disqualification of a candidate.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2018