LAHORE: The future of the Hamza Shehbaz-led government in Punjab has become pretty uncertain after the Supreme Court declared that the votes of defecting lawmakers will not be counted.

Constitutional experts are of the view that the scion of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ceases to remain the chief minister in light of the apex court’s decision, as the 26 votes polled by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) MPAs last month now stand uncounted. They say a new election will be held to elect the chief executive of the province as the incumbent CM has lost the majority of the House in retrospective effect of the court’s decision.

On April 16, the Punjab Assembly had elected Hamza Shehbaz as the 21st leader of the House amid outright violence that left many injured, including the PTI-PML-Q candidate for CM Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. Hamza had bagged 197 votes, including from 26 PTI dissidents, two independents and the lone Rah-i-Haq Party MPA. Mr Elahi did not get any vote as lawmakers from both the PTI and PML-Q had boycotted the session.

Hamza, who was already struggling to form his cabinet because of a constitutional crisis triggered by former Punjab governor Omar Sarfraz Cheema of the PTI, had to cancel his maiden press conference in Model Town on Tuesday following the court’s verdict. The CM had called the presser at 5pm to talk about his ‘performance’ over the last few weeks.

Experts believe new election for CM will be held, and winner will need majority in current house strength

While journalists were waiting for him for over an hour, Hamza was sitting in front of the TV in his room waiting for the SC’s verdict on a presidential reference seeking interpretation of Article 63-A of the Constitution. The court’s decision announced a few minutes after 6pm rattled Hamza, who in ‘utter disappointment’ decided not to face the media, and in his stead sent his lieutenant Attaullah Tarar to hold the presser.

Putting up a brave face over the SC verdict, Mr Tarar said the PML-N did not consider the 26 PTI MPAs dissidents as they had no direction from any party to vote for a certain candidate. “Our government is functional,” he insisted. He further said the governor could ask the chief minister to take a vote of confidence. However, there is no governor in Punjab at the moment.

To a question, he said PML-N leader Balighur Rehman would become the Punjab governor on June 3 under the law. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had sent a summary to the president for Mr Rehman’s appointment as the governor over a week ago, but Dr Arif Alvi had yet to endorse it.

Former federal minister Moonis Elahi of the PML-Q said after the apex court’s decision, Hamza Shehbaz ceased to hold the chief minister’s office. “The fake CM has lost the majority as now he does not have the required majority of 186 members. He should show moral courage, if he has any, after the SC’s verdict and resign,” Mr Moonis demanded.

Constitutional expert and senior lawyer Hamid Khan told Dawn that the court’s decision would have a retrospective effect on Hamza’s election as the Punjab chief minister. “The government cannot ignore the opinion of the Supreme Court and will have to accept it. A new election for the chief minister will be held in Punjab.”

Mr Khan further said the relevance drawn between articles 63-A and 17 (freedom of association) by the apex court was surprising. However, the detailed judgement will further elaborate the reasoning in this respect.

Eminent lawyer Salman Akram Raja said after the apex court’s verdict there would have to be a new election for the chief minister. “Again, we will have to go for the chief minister’s election in Punjab and the one who secures a majority vote in the present strength (excluding the 26 PTI dissidents) will be the winner,” Mr Raja maintained.

Senior lawyer Ahmad Awais said Hamza Shehbaz was no more the chief minister after the Supreme Court’s verdict. “Now in a run-off election for the CM, PTI-PML-Q candidate Parvez Elahi will win as he has more votes in the House than Hamza after the votes of 26 defected MPAs are not counted,” he said.

“The SC verdict is completely binding on the government to follow,” he said, adding Hamza might go for the option of filing a review petition against the decision.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2022

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