LAHORE: The opposition in the Punjab Assembly has announced that it will move court to stop Chief Minister Shahbaz from contesting the by-election in NA-120 — the seat vacated by deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif — if he does not first resign from the office of chief minister.
Key members of the opposition fear that the Punjab government will inject massive development funds into NA-120 — comprising Temple Road, Mozang, Anarakali, Lytton Road, Nisbat Road and Islampura — and directly influence the election if Mr Sharif does not quit his office after filing his nomination papers with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
“As of today, Shahbaz Sharif will continue as chief minister till he contests the election (scheduled for mid-September) from NA-120. Since there is no legal bar on Shahbaz Sharif continuing as chief minister till he contests the election, he is not considering quitting the office,” Malik Ahmad Khan, spokesperson for the provincial government, told Dawn on Monday.
The ECP is expected to announce the schedule for the by-election in NA-120 this week. It fell vacant following former PM Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court. The former premier had won the election from this constituency in 2013, defeating Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s candidate Yasmeen Rashid with a margin of around 40,000 votes.
“We will not only protest in and outside the Punjab Assembly, but also unanimously move court if Shahbaz Sharif does not resign from the office of the chief minister after filing his nomination papers to contest the by-poll in NA-120,” said Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly Mian Mahmoodur Rasheed.
Disputing the Punjab government’s claim that the chief minister could contest the election without separating himself from the top office, Mr Rasheed said: “Being a chief minister, Mr Sharif cannot even hold a rally or public meeting in any constituency in Punjab where an election is being held. How can he run his own campaign without doffing the cap of chief minister,” Mr Rasheed asked. He said that the opposition would not let Mr Sharif violate the ECP’s code of conduct.
Qazi Ahmed Saaed, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s parliamentary leader in the Punjab Assembly, agrees. “Our party believes that he must resign before contesting the by-poll as he will have no moral justification to cling to his office and contest at the same time.”
Sharing the legal position on the matter, Advocate Qazi Mobeen says that no law requires a sitting member of the provincial assembly to resign before contesting an election for the National Assembly. “Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif can contest the election for a National Assembly seat without resigning from the chief minister’s office or membership of the provincial assembly.”
However, the lawyer adds that Mr Sharif will not be allowed to use state machinery or protocol for his election campaign. In response to a question regarding the ECP’s code of conduct banning the participation of sitting ministers in election campaigns, Mr Mobeen said: “The ban pertains to the participation of a minister in the election campaign of other candidates, not in his/her own campaign.”
A provincial law officer requesting anonymity says: “Although there is no direct bar on contesting elections for another constituency while retaining an earlier seat, the ECP’s code of conduct will be a big hurdle in way of Mr Sharif contesting the by-poll without first resigning from the CM’s office.”
An opposition disunited
As far as the election in NA-120 goes, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) can rest easy knowing that the opposition is disunited on the all-important by-election to fill the seat vacated by the former PM.
“The question of extending the PTI nominee support in NA-120 is over after what Imran Khan said about our leadership the previous night,” a PPP leader told Dawn, after attending a consultative meeting of the party, chaired by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, in Islamabad on Monday. “The NA-120 contest could have been a test case for a grand alliance in the 2018 general elections, but the language Imran Khan used for our leadership washed away all such chances,” he adds.
Mian Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo, PPP’s senior vice-president, says there was a chance for both parties to engage in “mutual electoral cooperation” provided that PTI leaders check their language, behave like mature politicians and avoide solo flights.
While he admits that the PPP may not be in a position to win the Lahore by-election, he argues that the party could have provided PTI the votes it needed to secure the seat.
Referring to the Attock by-polls which the PTI had lost with a margin of 5,000 votes, while the PPP nominee had bagged 7,000 ballots, Mr Wattooo recalls that at that time, the PPP had withdrawn its support for the PTI candidate only after Mr Khan had used “foul” language for the PPP leaders in a public meeting.
The PPP has discussed the names of Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, former manifesto committee member Altaf Husain Qureshi, and Azizur Chan as likely candidates for the by-election, but the PPP chairman may select someone else for the electoral bout.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2017