THE unprecedented constitutional crisis in Punjab surrounding the legality of acting chief minister Usman Buzdar’s resignation and administering oath to chief minister-elect Hamza Shehbaz is likely to linger on despite the Lahore High Court’s expectation that “the President of Pakistan will nominate a person other than governor of the province to swear in the newly elected chief minister”.

The crisis erupted when the newly appointed Punjab Governor Omer Sarfraz Cheema on April 17, a day after the election of the chief minister in a stormy session of the Punjab Assembly that descended into downright violence, refused to administer oath to chief minister-elect Hamza, stating the assembly secretary’s report, Lahore High Court’s instructions and facts presented to him raised objections on the validity of the election.

In the election, scores of PTI MPAs were injured, as well as assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi — one of the two candidates for the chief ministership.

Hamza Shehbaz had bagged 197 votes, including 26 from PTI dissidents, while Mr Elahi did not get any as the PTI and PML-Q lawmakers felt they were not allowed to vote.

After refusing to administer the oath to Hamza, the governor stated, “I have written a letter to the Punjab advocate general (AG) and Punjab Assembly speaker seeking their opinion on the assembly secretary’s report, LHC directions and other facts to make up my mind whether to hold the oath-taking ceremony at the Governor House or not.”

Eventually, AG Ahmad Awais opined that Hamza Shehbaz’s election was illegal, as the Punjab Assembly deputy speaker did not conduct the proceedings from the speaker’s chair and they were marred by policemen stepping on the assembly floor, which was prohibited under the law. The speaker also commented that the so-called election of the chief minister was unconstitutional.

The AG also highlighted the technical error in Usman Buzdar’s resignation that it was neither hand-written nor addressed to the provincial governor, yet was accepted by the then governor.

The issue was first highlighted by PML-N leaders Rana Sanaullah and Khawaja Saad Rafique, and the PTI-PML-Q coalition had rejected it, saying the resignation had been duly accepted by the governor who also called Mr Buzdar to his office for verification. Interestingly, later the PML-N took a U-turn and did not move court against it, saying there was no need because the party had secured the required number of lawmakers in its support and an early chief minister’s election suited it.

Now, the PTI coalition has also flipped on its claims and denied the legality of Buzdar’s resignation and wants the process to linger on as it wants to gain time and wait for the Election Commission of Pakistan to decide a reference against 26 PTI MPAs moved by Punjab Assembly Speaker Parvez Elahi. The speaker has urged the ECP to declare the MPAs defected from the PTI since they had violated the party discipline and voted for the opposition’s candidate for chief minister, Hamza Shehbaz.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court is already discussing the scope of disqualification of a parliamentarian in case of defection under Article 63A of the Constitution and whether it should be for life or the remaining term of the assembly.

The seeds for this constitutional crisis had been sown when former Punjab governor Chaudhry Sarwar had accepted Usman Buzdar’s resignation on April 1, which the latter had addressed and submitted to the then prime minister Imran Khan on March 28. The governor had then invited Mr Buzdar to his office for the confirmation of his resignation and upon assurance, accepted it.

Subsequently, the Punjab government de-notified Buzdar, but in the same notification allowed him “to continue to hold office until his successor enters upon the office”.

In an array of notifications, the Punjab government also de-notified all the 37 provincial ministers, five advisers and as many special assistants to the chief minister.

Soon after acceptance of the then chief minister’s resignation, a legal debate ensued in the political and bureaucratic circles, who questioned that Mr Buzdar had addressed the former prime minister in his resignation so how the Punjab governor could accept it.

They quoted sub-article 8 of Article 130 of the Constitution, which reads: “The chief minister may, by writing under his hand addressed to the governor, resign (from) his office.”

Legal opinion

Advocate Khurram Chughtai maintains that the opinion that the resignation of Buzdar was unlawfully accepted by the governor was simply mistakenly construed. He said it became a past and close transaction once the governor accepted the resignation even though there was a technical glitch. The provincial cabinet has also been dissolved.

“Once it is accepted, it shall be deemed that the governor was the addressee in the resignation,” he added.

On Mr Cheema seeking opinion from the AG, Advocate Chughtai said the governor being a representative of the federation cannot seek any legal opinion from an advocate general of a province; the right forum was the office of the Attorney General of Pakistan. The governor did not enjoy the status of the provincial government and the opinion he reportedly sought from the AG did not fall under Article 100 and Rules of Business 2011, he maintained.

Advocate Usama Khawar admitted the resignation did not follow the legal requirement and asked, “If the Constitution clearly explains a process, why has it not been followed?”

However, in this particular case, he says the resignation had been accepted because neither the governor nor the chief minister had raised the objection.

Bureaucracy’s stance

On the other hand, a source in the bureaucratic circles said, “The governor has no power to entertain any constitutional document not addressed to him or which has not been tendered strictly in line with the Constitution’s express provisions.”

He added that it was an explicit and unequivocal provision of the Constitution, which no one, including the governor, has the power to rewrite or amend as per his whims. “Each opinion has to find its sanction and basis from within the Constitution and not otherwise,” the bureaucrat remarked.

Meanwhile, former Punjab governor Chaudhry Sarwar on Friday acknowledged that the lawful practice was that the chief minister should have addressed his resignation to the governor and it would then be sent to the principal secretary to the governor for processing.

But since a lot many things were being asked of him while exerting immense pressure, he said, “I accepted and signed CM Buzdar’s resignation under the same pressure.”

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2022

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