The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Monday ordered that the office of Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker be reopened and he be allowed back onto the premises after the stakeholders failed to mutually finalise a date for the election of the chief minister
LHC Chief Justice Ameer Bhatti also ordered for the high court registrar and PA Secretary Muhammad Khan Bhatti to accompany the deputy speaker while reopening his office. Additionally, the secretary was ordered to note down all information regarding the assembly's state, including furniture, vandalism and CCTV footage.
Justice Bhatti's remarks had come as the court took up Leader of the Opposition in PA Hamza Shehbaz's petition which had sought its help in holding elections for Punjab's new chief minister in a "fair and transparent" manner. Earlier, the LHC CJ had clubbed PA speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi's petition in the case as well, which had accused the PML-N leader of holding MPAs hostage.
The judge had earlier adjourned the hearing to 2pm and found the political parties to still be deadlocked when hearing resumed.
Ali Zafar, counsel of PML-Q, argued that the deputy speaker had a no-confidence motion moved against him so he could not chair an assembly session but the chief justice rebuffed him, saying that he was "wrong" and if not Mazari then who else could conduct the chief minister's election.
PML-N's counsel Azam Nazeer Tarar said there was a no-confidence motion against Qasim Khan Suri as well yet he was chairing today's National Assembly session.
The chief justice directed implementation on the orders given and adjourned the hearing to Tuesday at 9:30am.
Earlier, the judge instructed Hamza and Elahi along with Mazari to mutually finalise a date for the election of the chief minister.
"All of them should sit in the office of the Punjab advocate-general and solve the matter amicably," Justice Ameer Bhatti said. "Remember that we are all residents of this country. Don't create a scene outside. Solve the problem at home, together," he remarked.
During the hearing, referring to the April 3 PA session, the judge remarked that the question in front of the court was whether an assembly sitting to elect the CM could be adjourned. "We have to ask relevant authorities about the process of the CM election."
In his arguments, Tarar said that the post of Punjab CM had been empty since the resignation of Usman Buzdar. "Right now, the province doesn't have an executive," he said.
Consequently, the judge directed the PA secretary to brief the court about the election record.
He replied that after Buzdar's resignation on April 1, the process of election started the next day. "On April 2, the scrutiny [of candidates] was completed and nomination papers were accepted as well."
On April 3, the secretary continued, a session — led by Mazari — was called, but it was adjourned till April 6 after a fight broke out between the women MPAs inside the assembly hall.
"Do you have a video of the fight," the LHC CJ asked.
The secretary replied in the affirmative and continued that on April 4 he had sent a report on the damages inside the PA to the speaker who then further adjourned the session.
"But on April 6, a notification issued by Mazari started doing rounds on social media. It said that a session was being called in the evening," he said, adding that the Assembly Secretariat wasn't informed about it despite repeated calls to the deputy speaker.
Consequently, he added, the speaker striped Mazari of his powers.
Here, Justice Bhatti asked the reason behind the speaker's actions. "You didn't receive the notification ... This means no process was to take place."
The secretary replied that later a no-confidence motion had been moved against the deputy speaker. "When this happens, the deputy speaker can't chair the session."
'Can CM election be postponed?'
The judge asked again whether it was legally possible to postpone the election for the chief minister. "Apparently, it isn't allowed," he observed and then wondered if nomination papers could be submitted a day before the poll.
Ali Zafar, counsel of PML-Q, revealed that the papers could be submitted any day before the election.
But the LHC CJ said that the rules "mention hours not days". He also asked if the speaker had the right to suspend the deputy speaker's powers if the former was contesting elections.
"The main question is that under what law was the date of election changed," he said. "How can someone violate the election schedule and give a date of their own?"
For his part, Zafar said that the court could not intervene in the matters of the assembly. "The issue was brought up in the Supreme Court but no order was passed," he added.
Consequently, Punjab Advocate-General Ahmed Owais took the rostrum. "I had said [in the SC] that no one could exceed the powers in the law."
But the PML-N counsel contended that the apex court had said that it was a provincial matter and should be taken to the high court.
Here, the advocate-general brought up PML-N's mock assembly session at a private hotel in Lahore but Nazeer argued that the meeting was just "symbolic". "There was not even a peon of the assembly there," he added.
'Voting should be held as soon as possible'
After the arguments, Justice Bhatti observed that election rules were formed for a reason. "You can't follow or break the rules whenever you want to," he said, adding that even the SC had ruled that the no-confidence movement couldn't be extended.
"It had emphasised that voting should be held," the LHC CJ recalled and reiterated that the assembly had no other option than to follow the rules.
He also asked why the election had to be delayed till April 16. "There's no reason to extend this. Hold the voting in a day or two. Hold it as soon as possible."
The judge, consequently, adjourned the hearing till 2pm and instructed all the respondents to chalk out a plan on the election together and present it in the court.
Punjab CM election
The Punjab Assembly has to elect the new leader of the house after Usman Buzdar resigned last month. PML-Q's Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and PML-N's Hamza, who has secured the support of PTI's dissident lawmakers — the Jahangir Khan Tarin and Aleem Khan groups — are expected to go head to head in the race to become the next chief minister.
To be elected as chief minister, a candidate will need at least 186 votes in the 371-member house.
In the Punjab Assembly, the PTI has 183 lawmakers, PML-Q 10, PML-N 165, PPP seven, five are independent and one belongs to Rah-i-Haq.
The decisive factor in the election will be the support of the Jahangir Tarin group, which is said to have the votes of at least 16 MPAs.
On Thursday, the opposition submitted a no-confidence motion against Elahi, who is also the PA speaker, further squeezing space for the provincial government to play its cards.
After the apex court’s decision on Thursday, where it nullified the National Assembly deputy speaker’s ruling on the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan, the ruling coalition in Punjab has once again warned its MPAs against voting for Hamza or they would be de-seated.
In the National Assembly, the joint opposition did not need the dissident PTI MNAs to oust PM Imran as it had the required numbers, including the support of the former government’s allies. But in the PA, the opposition needs the backing of a good number of PTI dissenters to install its chief minister.
On Wednesday, the PML-N-led opposition had been barred from entering the PA, as it was sealed after Elahi declared Deputy Speaker Dost Muhammad Mazari’s ‘order’ to summon the session ‘illegal’.
According to the assembly secretariat, the session would be convened on April 16 as per an earlier notification of the assembly signed by the deputy speaker. Elahi had used his authority as the speaker and ordered withdrawal of powers delegated to Mazari with immediate effect.
Mazari’s power to preside over a session was also snatched following the submission of a no-confidence motion against him by his own fellow lawmakers in the PTI-PML-Q coalition. His sudden change of heart was termed the ‘handiwork’ of the PML-N leadership that allegedly wooed him through a ‘good offer’.