An individual disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution cannot serve as head of a political party, a three-judge Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar ruled on Wednesday, sending another seismic wave rippling through Pakistan's electoral system.
The apex court's verdict was in response to 17 petitions challenging the controversial Elections Act 2017, which had been bulldozed through parliament last year to pave the way for Nawaz Sharif's return to the PML-N's helm as party president.
Sharif had earlier been deemed unfit to hold public office in the landmark Panama Papers judgement, in which a five-member bench of the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that the former prime minister had not been 'honest' and 'truthful' in discharging his obligations as a lawmaker — both necessary conditions to hold public office in Pakistan under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution.
Apart from the chief executive of Pakistan's chair, Sharif had also lost his party's presidency in the July 28, 2017 Panama Papers judgement. A ECP notification had stated that election laws do not allow a person who does not qualify to become a member of the parliament to serve as an office-bearer of a political entity.
Following his disqualification in July, Senator Sardar Muhammad Yaqoob Khan Nasar was appointed interim chairman of the PML-N in August.
However, the passage of the Elections Act 2017 last year thanks to the PML-N's outright majority in the National Assembly and at least one swing vote in Senate allowed Nawaz Sharif to be re-elected as PML-N chief.
Opposition parties Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Awami Muslim League, PPP and others had petitioned the apex court to look into the controversial law, and the court had begun hearing the case in Jan 2018.
In its judgement today, the court declared Section 203 of the Elections Act — which allowed Sharif to retake his party's leadership — null and void, and subsequently ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to remove Nawaz Sharif as president of the PML-N.
It further ruled that "all steps taken, orders passed, directions given and documents issued" by Sharif since his disqualification last year will be deemed to have been nullified.
The CJP, while reading out the verdict in Courtroom 1, further said that a person who is disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution is not eligible to sign off on any document needed to nominate someone to the National Assembly or Senate.
CJP Nisar, in his remarks, said that it is mandatory for a party head to fulfil the requirements of Articles 62 and 63, as a party head is powerful and political parties control the government.
"It is crucial for parliamentarians to be of good conduct to run the affairs of the Parliament," he said.
The judgement issued by the court read: "Under Article 63-A of the Constitution, the position of a party head of a political party that has representation in, interalia, the Parliament has a central role in the performance of duties by the members of the Parliament. For rendering such a role, a party head must necessarily possess the qualifications and be free of the disqualifications contemplated in Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution."
"The Election Act 2017 empowers a party head to perform multifarious functions that have [a] direct nexus with the process of elections to the Parliament and to matters relating to the affairs of political parties having parliamentary presence," the judgement adds.
"As a consequence, it is declared that any person who suffers from lack of qualification under Article 62 or disqualification under Article 63 of the Constitution is debarred from holding the position of ‘party head’ by whatever name called and prohibited from exercising any of the powers provided in Article 63-A of the Constitution, as ‘party head’ or any other power in the said capacity under any law, rule, regulation, statute, instrument or document of any political party.
'"Such bar and prohibition shall commence from the date of disqualification and continue till such time that the lack of qualification/disqualification of such person continues in terms of the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution," the judgement said.
"As a result of the above declaration, all steps taken, orders passed, directions given and documents issued by Respondent No.4 [Nawaz Sharif] as party head after his disqualification on 28.07.2017 are also declared to have never been taken, passed, given or issued in the eyes of the law.
The Election Commission of Pakistan is accordingly directed to remove the name of Respondent No.4 (Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif) as president/party head of Respondent No.3 (PML-N from all relevant record(s)," the court's verdict read.
Former ECP secretary Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad, while speaking to DawnNews, said that the verdict may not affect the PML-N's registration as a party. However, decisions taken by Nawaz Sharif will be nullified, including the tickets issued by him for the Senate elections, and that a new schedule may have to be announced for Senate polls.
Nawaz Sharif's daughter and PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz reacted to the SC verdict on Twitter, claiming the judgement was in fact a victory for Sharif.
"Nawaz Sharif, you have won. The highest institutions of justice are not giving verdicts against you, but testifying to your truthfulness and presenting evidence in favour of your stance," she wrote.
PML-N asked to elect new president within 45 days
Following the apex court's directives, the ECP removed Sharif's name as the head of PML-N from all its records. An updated list of registered political parties on the ECP site showed a blank space in the 'name of party leader' column in front of PML-N.
The name of Sharif as president of PML-N "shall be deemed to have been removed from the election record with effect from 28-07-2017 [the day Sharif was disqualified]", said a notification issued by the ECP.
In a letter sent to PML-N Acting Secretary General Ahsan Iqbal, the commission directed the party to fill the vacant post of its president within 45 days after the removal of Sharif as party head.
“If the office of president falls vacant due to death, resignation or any other reason before the expiry of the term of his office, it shall be the duty of the secretary general to convene within seven days a meeting of the central working committee (CWC) to elect an acting president and fix a date for the meeting of the council of PML-N within 45 days of the occurrence of vacancy to elect the president," the ECP letter said, quoting the PML-N party constitution.
Meanwhile, the ECP has called a meeting tomorrow to decide the future of upcoming Senate elections and by-polls in light of today's SC verdict.
Over the course of today's hearing, Additional Attorney General (AAG) Rana Waqar had told the SC that the Constitution provides every citizen with the right to join or form a political party.
Waqar referred to Article 17 of the Constitution, which concerns the "freedom of association", and said that the second clause of the article specifically gives citizens the right to form or join a political party.
However, Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid's lawyer, Barrister Farrogh Naseem, pointed out that Article 17(2) is "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan".
He insisted that a person who violates Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution should therefore not be allowed to lead a political party since it is a "matter of public leadership".
Babar Awan, the counsel for the PTI, had directed the court's attention towards the upcoming Senate elections and said that a disqualified politician was handing out tickets for Senate candidates from the PML-N.
'Don't owe anyone an explanation'
Referring to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi's speech in Parliament on Monday, in which the premier had criticised the judiciary for "insulting" elected officials, Justice Nisar today said that the judiciary had never called any politician a "thief".
PM Abbasi had said: "I was not willing to say this but it has become necessary. The elected representatives of the 207 million people are being dubbed as thiefs, robbers and the mafia. Sometimes threats are being hurled that we [judges] will nullify the legislation that you [parliamentarians] have passed."
The CJP today said that he had praised the country's leadership and added that he does not "owe anyone an explanation".
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the court had declared Article 17 of the Elections Act null and void, which has been corrected. The error is regretted.
With additional reporting by Fahad Chaudhry in Islamabad.