ISLAMABAD: Both the Supreme Court and the Election Commission came under opposition fire in parliament on Monday for a perceived wrong done in cutting short the schedule for presidential election due on Tuesday, with some upper house members demanding that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim resign.
In simultaneous one-day sessions of the National Assembly and Senate, the PPP, which has boycotted the controversial election and withdrawn the candidature of Senator Raza Rabbani, its nominee for the country’s top, but figurehead, office, led the attack on both political and legal grounds against what some leading figures of the main opposition party called a “tyrannical” violation of the constitution and rigging.
Lawmakers of the PPP and some smaller allied parties, who wore black armbands as a mark of protest against the Supreme Court’s July 26 order for the election commission to advance the polling date to July 30 from August 6, walked out of the National Assembly after speeches by two opposition figures and a minister, but stayed on in the Senate before both the houses were prorogued after about two hours of sitting.
The PPP and its allies will not vote in Tuesday’s presidential election beginning at parliament and the four provincial assemblies at 10am, which the PML-N nominee, Mamnoon Hussain, a Karachi businessman, is sure to win with a big majority against a former Supreme Court judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, candidate of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, which has preferred to stay in the race for what it called advancing the democratic process, though it endorsed the alleged lapses blamed by the PPP on the election commission and the apex court.
In the absence of opposition leader Khurshid Ahmed Shah from the lower house owing to the death of a sister in Sukkur on Sunday, PPP parliamentary leader Amin Fahim mounted only a low-pitched attack there, mainly targeting the PML-N for going to the Supreme Court to get the election schedule abridged on some controversial religious grounds and a three-judge bench for doing just that in single hearing without hearing other parties, but he seemed soft on the election commission, accusing it only of showing weakness.
But the fireworks were more resounding in the Senate, where an opening lambaste by Senator Rabbani was followed by strong assault by opposition leader Aitzaz Ahsan against what he saw as illegal and unconstitutional orders of the judiciary and demands for the chief justice and the chief election commissioner to resign from their office.
BOMBSHELL: Acknowledging the numerical superiority of the ruling party and its allies in the existing 674-vote electoral college of the two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies, Mr Fahim said the PPP had just begun campaigning for its candidate when “all of a sudden a bombshell” came in the form of the Supreme Court order for curtailing the election schedule on a petition from PML-N chairman Senator Raja Zafarul Haq on grounds that August 6 would be too close to Eidul Fitr and many lawmakers at the time were likely to be in Saudi Arabia for Umra or confined to mosques in ‘aitkaf’ (prayers in seclusion).
“This is unbearable and … unacceptable,” he said of the change and asked: “Has the Supreme Court not deviated from the constitution?”
He saw no surprise in former PPP allies Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam going to the other side, but regretted PTI remaining in the race despite initial indications of a boycott, though he said PTI chairman Imran Khan could make amends in the fashion of cricket by “hitting a six” before the end of the contest.
However, PTI vice-chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi, speaking for the party in the absence of Imran Khan, gave no inclination of such last-minute change of course, though he said he agreed with PPP’s reservations about what he called the election commission’s “negligence” and the Supreme Court’s “haste”.
He asked the PPP to end the boycott and vote for the PTI candidate in the interest of its objective of a united opposition.
While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif quietly listened to the opposition onslaught, Water and Power Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif responded with a counter-chargesheet, saying the boycott was an “after-thought” after PPP’s Khurshid Shah, in earlier contacts with him, had shown no reservations about and “rather agreed” to government plans to seek the July 30 polling date.
He said Mr Shah had also failed to come with a promised response to a PML-N proposal for selecting a common presidential candidate from three suggested names — Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz, former Supreme Court judge Saeeduzzaman Siddiqi and Mamnoon Hussain.
SENATE ASSAULT: Opening the discussion in the Senate, Raza Rabbani accused the election commission of abdicating its independence given through the 18th and 20th constitution amendments framed under his stewardship of a multi-party parliamentary committee.
Amid slogans of “shame, shame”, Mr Rabbani regretted that the court dictated the election schedule in its “one-sided judgement” without hearing other parties concerned in what he called “going beyond its mandate”.“Should I obey the Supreme Court or should I follow the constitution which says that only the election commission has the powers to announce election date and schedule?” he asked about the verdict, which he said had actually relegated the status of provincial assemblies and was a step towards imposition of a “one-unit” system in the country. “It (the order) is a breach of privilege of all the provincial assemblies as they have been deprived of their right to hear the views of the presidential candidates,” he said.
Mr Rabbani said he had no option but to use his “democratic right” to boycott the presidential election after exposure of what he alleged a “nexus” between the election commission, the government and the court.
The ANP’s Zahid Khan was of the view that the court decision would sharpen the sense of deprivation among smaller provinces. “Every person sitting in an institution becomes a dictator.”
“Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry should resign as he has become controversial,” Mr Khan said amid opposition desk-thumping.
The PPP’s Farhatullah Babar said that in the name of interpreting the constitution, the Supreme Court seemed to have embarked upon a “dangerous course of rewriting the constitution itself”, and asked parliamentarians across the political divide to realise the gravity of the trend and join hands to check it.
He warned that if this trend was not checked, many voices would rise from within parliament supporting Zahid Khan’s demand for resignation of the chief justice, which he said would be unfortunate.
Mr Babar said that merely because a political party was unable to bring together its voters to vote, the Supreme Court assumed the constitutional role of the election commission and gave a new schedule for the presidential election, which was “going too far’ in the name of interpreting the constitution.
He said the court did not even ask how many parliamentarians would be sitting in ‘aitkaf’ and how many of them would be going for Umra.
He said the PPP had reasons to feel aggrieved and noticed a “judicial bias” against it in a string of judicial decisions, including the removal of then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani by overturning the ruling of the National Assembly’s speaker and a contempt notice to then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf after he requested the court to appoint a commission done in the case of Arsalan Iftikhar, son of the chief justice.
Similarly, he said, out of thousands of NRO cases, only the one pertaining to President Zardari was pursued with “vigour and tenacity”.
Mr Aitzaz Ahsan took the floor after Raja Zafarul Haq drew the attention of the house towards Article 68 of the constitution, saying that the conduct of the judges could not be discussed on the floor of the house. But, reading out Article 68, Mr Ahsan said the conduct of a judge could not be discussed “in the discharge of his duties” and added that in his opinion court order was not “in the discharge of (its) duties”.
“It actually has acted beyond the course of its duty,” Mr Ahsan said, adding the court’s order made no mention as to which fundamental right had been violated and how the violation would be undone by advancing the date of election.
The ANP’s parliamentary leader, Haji Adeel, said when people could raise slogans demanding release of the chief justice, they could again raise the slogans “the chief justice should be ousted, the chief justice should be ousted”.
The PML-N’s Syed Zafar Ali Shah wound up the debate by criticising the PPP for not filing a review petition before the Supreme Court against its order. He said Mr Ahsan’s arguments seemed to be valid, but he should have raised them in the court.
Mr Shah recalled that when the PPP was in majority in the Senate and all the assemblies, its leadership did not even nominate Mr Rabbani as chairman of the Senate and now they were using his name for political purposes. He said the courts could give wrong judgements, but it did not mean that they should pack up the courts, the election commission and all institutions.