The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Tuesday reserved its verdict on a petition filed by Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly (PA) Hamza Shahbaz seeking help for holding fair and transparent elections for the position of chief minister of Punjab.
After hearing the case for nearly five hours, LHC Chief Justice Ameer Bhatti observed that since there was a deadlock between the stakeholders over mutually deciding the election date, the decision would thus be taken by the court.
Court officials said the verdict would not be announced today.
'Court can't intervene in assembly proceedings'
During his arguments today, PML-Q's counsel Ali Zafar contended that Hamza's petition was inadmissible. "The Lahore High Court has no power to change the date for the chief minister's election."
The petitioner, PML-Q's counsel claimed, was challenging the executive powers of the provincial assembly. "The courts can't intervene in matters concerning when the assembly session should be called and when it shouldn't," Zafar said, adding that that would be akin to the assembly inquiring about the adjournment of court cases.
"[The] Parliament and the courts respect each other and, therefore, do not interfere in each other's jurisdiction," he said. "If the petitioner says the assembly rules weren't followed, it's the matter of the assembly and should be solved there only."
At this, Justice Bhatti interjected that the rules mentioned prompt election for the chief minister.
"But the rules don't mention the exact date or time," the PML-Q lawyer argued. "They just say that the assembly can't indulge in any other activities other than holding the poll."
Zafar added that there were just a few days left in the election and changing the date now wouldn't matter.
Deputy speaker's power
The court inquired why the power of PA Deputy Speaker Sardar Dost Mazari to hold the session was striped off by Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi.
Zafar replied that the deputy speaker was never given the powers for the election process. "The Assembly rules decide the power the speaker has and the powers that he should have," he added and then referred to PML-N's mock assembly session held at a private hotel in Lahore.
"They tried to form an assembly despite an existing one. It is unconstitutional and illegal," he contended.
At this point, Justice Bhatti said that no one could assume a post without taking the oath.
"Exactly. No notification regarding the success or appointment of Hamza Shahbaz was issued," PML-N lawyer Azam Nazeer Tarar argued.
Appointment of presiding officer
At one point in the hearing, Zafar brought up the matter of the presiding officer's appointment. He said that the deputy speaker couldn't take up that role and hold the election because a no-confidence motion had been submitted against him.
"The assembly doesn't trust him to hold a fair and transparent election," the PML-Q lawyer said. "The deputy speaker has already started imposing restrictions on the PA secretary."
The LHC CJ wondered what would happen if both the parties try and get their candidate to preside the session.
Zafar cautioned that there could again be a deadlock and chances of Governor Raj's imposition would increase.
PML-N's Tarar suggested that there were four independent members in the PA. "One of them can be appointed the presiding officer for voting."
But the PML-Q counsel raised an objection at this option as well and questioned the non-partisanship of the independent lawmakers as well. Both the lawyers then told the court to take a decision because the parties couldn't reach a consensus.
'Voting should be held as soon as possible'
During yesterday's hearing, the court had instructed Hamza, Elahi and Mazari to mutually decide a date for the CM election.
"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.
However, after they failed, Justice Bhatti ordered that the office of Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker be reopened and he be allowed back onto the premises.
He had 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.
The judge had further observed that election rules were formed for a reason and couldn't be broke just like that. He added that it was important to hold the voting as soon as possible.
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’.