The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Wednesday decided against de-seating 20 dissident Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Members of National Assembly (MNAs), dismissing references against them sent by the party.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja presided over a three-member ECP bench that issued the verdict, which it had reserved earlier in the day.
Reading out the judgment, the ECP said that it was a unanimous decision and would be later released on the ECP website. The ECP observed that the references against the dissidents were not in line with Article 63-A of the Constitution.
Reacting to the ruling, PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry, in a statement, termed the ECP's decision "foolish" but "expected" as it was already apparent what conclusion the electoral body would reach.
He said the party would fight such "lawlessness" and prevail with the people's support. "This decision of the election commission will be challenged in the Supreme Court," he said, adding that a reference would be filed against Raja in the Supreme Judicial Council.
The former information minister had announced plans for reference earlier in the day.
"The Election Commission has become the PML-N's B-team," Chaudhry alleged. "The ECP says that those who abandoned the party are still a part of it. All these lotay (turncoats) have been posting pictures of Nawaz Sharif in their constituencies," he added.
Later, he took to Twitter to deride the decision taken by the ECP as the sort of ruling that "destroys institutions".
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, another senior PTI leader, said his party was "disappointed" with the ECP decision and indicated that it would challenge it in the court.
Qureshi said he understood that the constitutional institutions should not be criticised, "However such institutions must also have responsibility and they must fulfill it."
The matter first came to light in March after several PTI lawmakers were found staying at the Sindh House in Islamabad ahead of the no-trust vote against then-prime minister Imran Khan, some of whom spoke to the media about their grievances with the party.
They had refuted allegations that they had been offered money to make the opposition's no-trust move a success but said they would vote in accordance with their "conscience".
Subsequently, the PTI had filed declarations and references against 20 members of the National Assembly, seeking their disqualification under Article 63-A of the Constitution.
The PTI had filed references against MNAs Noor Alam Khan, Dr Mohammad Afzal Khan Dhandla, Nawab Sher Waseer, Raja Riaz Ahmad, Ahmed Hussain Deharr, Rana Mohammad Qasim Noon, Asim Nazeer, Amjad Farooq Khosa, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, Chaudhry Farrukh Altaf, Syed Mobeen Ahmed, Sayed Sami-ul-Hassan Gillani, Mohammad Abdul Ghaffar Wattoo, Sayed Basit Ahmad Sultan, Aamir Talal Gopang, Sardar Riaz Mehmood Khan Mazari, Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, Wajiha Qamar, Nuzhat Pathan and Javeria Zafar.
Eventually, the dissident MNAs' votes were not needed in Imran's removal, as the opposition managed to stitch together support from government-allied political parties.
After Imran Khan was removed as prime minister on the night of April 9, his declarations against the dissident PTI MNAs were sent to the ECP on April 14 by the acting NA speaker.
Last month, the Election Commission had issued notices to the 20 MNAs, directing them to appear before it.
In their written replies, the defected MNAs said they had neither resigned from the PTI nor had joined any other political party, nor had they voted against their parties stated line.
The declaration and the reference were "baseless, unsubstantiated and vague", one reply read.
"It has been actuated by bad faith in order to suppress a voice of dissent within the party lines. Such actions are tantamount to converting the party into an authoritarian group commanded in a dictatorial mindset of one individual," the reply said.
Another reply submitted to the ECP said the reference and the declaration did not fulfil the mandatory requirements under Article 63-A.
Situation of dissidents in Punjab
It is pertinent to mention that the ECP is also scrutinising a reference by the PTI under Article 63-A against 26 of its dissident MPAs in Punjab. Last month, PML-N's Hamza Shehbaz won the election for Punjab chief minister, defeating PTI-PML-Q's joint candidate, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. Hamza had bagged 197 votes, including 26 from PTI dissidents. Elahi did not get any votes as the PTI and PML-Q lawmakers had boycotted the election.
Subsequently, Elahi had sent a reference against the dissident MPAs to the ECP, urging it to declare them being in defection from the PTI since they had violated party discipline by casting their votes in Hamza's favour in violation of party directions.
The dissident lawmakers are Raja Sagheer Ahmed, Malik Ghulam Rasool Sangha, Saeed Akbar Khan, Mohammad Ajmal, Faisal Hayat, Mahar Mohammad Aslam, Mian Khalid Mehmood, Abdul Aleem Khan, Nazir Ahmad Chohan, Amin Zulqernain, Malik Nauman Langrial, Mohammad Salman, Zawar Hussain Warraich, Nazir Ahmad Khan, Fida Hussain, Zahra Batool, Mohammad Tahir, Aisha Nawaz, Sajida Yousaf, Haroon Imran Gill, Uzma Kardar, Malik Asad Ali, Ijaz Masih, Sabtain Raza, Javeed Akhtar and Mohsin Atta Khan Khosa.
The 26 MPAs named in the the reference had been issued directions by the PTI but they had cast their votes for Hamza, Elahi's petition had stated. Subsequently, the dissident MPAs had been issued show cause notices to explain their position but they had not replied, it added.
According to Article 63-A of the Constitution, a parliamentarian can be disqualified on grounds of defection if he "votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction issued by the parliamentary party to which he belongs, in relation to election of the prime minister or chief minister; or a vote of confidence or a vote of no-confidence; or a money bill or a Constitution (amendment) bill".
The article says that the party head has to declare in writing that the MNA concerned has defected but before making the declaration, the party head will "provide such member with an opportunity to show cause as to why such declaration may not be made against him".
After giving the member a chance to explain their reasons, the party head will forward the declaration to the speaker, who will forward it to the chief election commissioner (CEC). The CEC will then have 30 days to confirm the declaration. If confirmed by the CEC, the member "shall cease to be a member of the House and his seat shall become vacant".