The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday de-seated 25 dissident MPAs of the PTI who voted for PML-N's Hamza Shehbaz in the election for Punjab chief minister, stating that they had defected from the party.
A three-member bench of the ECP, comprising Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja, Nisar Ahmed Durrani and Shah Mohammad Jatoi, heard the reference.
The decision comes days after the Supreme Court's decision on a presidential reference seeking its interpretation of Article 63-A, related to the disqualification of lawmakers over defection, which was announced earlier this week.
Article 63-A seeks to restrict lawmakers from voting (or abstaining) in violation of party instructions "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".
In its interpretation of this Article, the apex court said votes cast against party direction "cannot be counted and must be disregarded, and this is so regardless of whether the party head, subsequent to such vote, proceeds to take, or refrains from taking, action that would result in a declaration of defection".
The votes of the 25 PTI dissidents had been instrumental in helping Hamza get over the line; he received a total of 197 votes while 186 votes are required for a simple majority. Since these 25 lawmakers are no longer members of the House, Hamza has lost his majority.
The dissident lawmakers are Raja Sagheer Ahmed, Malik Ghulam Rasool Sangha, Saeed Akbar Khan, Mohammad Ajmal, Abdul Aleem Khan, Nazir Ahmed Chohan, Mohammad Amin Zulqernain, Malik Nauman Langrial, Mohammad Salman, Zawar Hussain Warraich, Nazir Ahmed Khan, Fida Hussain, Zahra Batool, Mohammad Tahir, Aisha Nawaz, Sajida Yousaf, Haroon Imran Gill, Uzma Kardar, Malik Asad Ali, Ijaz Masih, Mohammad Sabtain Raza, Mohsin Atta Khan Khosa, Mian Khalid Mehmood, Mehar Mohammad Aslam and Faisal Hayat.
In its judgement, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the ECP said it had two options — to ignore the completion of actus reus (voting in favour of opposite candidate) on the grounds on non-fulfilment of prerequisites as mentioned in Article 63-A and decline the declarations or hold that voting against party policies was a "serious matter" as observed by the Supreme Court.
"We are of the view that the casting of votes by the respondent[s] in favour of opposing candidate is a serious issue and worst form of betrayal of the electorate and party's policy. Therefore, we hold that the defection in the subject cases shall not depend upon strict proof of observance of prerequisites as provided in Article 63-A.
"We have arrived at the conclusion that participation of the respondents in the election of chief minister of Punjab and casting their votes in favour of opposing candidate has established the factum of defection on the basis of the subject declarations against all the respondents.
"The declarations are confirmed and the respondents cease to be members of Punjab Assembly and their seats become vacant."
Talking to Dawn.com after the ruling, Khalid Ishaq, counsel for 10 of the MPAs, said a decision on filing an appeal in the Supreme Court would be taken after discussions.
'One chapter of conspiracy' closed
The ruling was hailed by PTI senior leader Asad Umar, who, along with other supporters standing outside the ECP's offices, congratulated the nation for standing against the "conspiracy, the foreign interference".
"Today, another chapter of this conspiracy has been exposed," he added.
"I also want to sympathise with politicians who invested millions of rupees in these turncoats. The way one chapter of this conspiracy has been reverted, we want the rest of it to meet the same fate so that the country could be steered out of the current crisis," Umar said.
He pointed out that Hamza had 197 votes and 25 of those MPAs had now been "disqualified on a permanent basis". The PTI leader demanded of the government to immediately announce new elections.
He also referred to the ECP, saying "if you are to announce elections, then it must not be done without consultation of major political stakeholder [PTI]."
Ruling will have 'no effect' on Hamza govt
Federal information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb held a press conference following the ruling, in which she criticised Imran Khan for "attacking ECP just a week ago and seeking the CEC's resignation but who is now praising it".
"When decisions were not in his favour, Imran Khan was criticising the courts and running campaigns [against them], but when the decision comes in his favour, he changes his mind."
She, however, insisted that the ECP's decision does not affect the Punjab government, which she said consists of allies and the PML-N. "The de-seating of the 25 MPAs will have no impact on Hamza Shehbaz and his government," she added.
"Even after this decision, the strength of the PML-N and allies still stands at 177 and the opponents are at 172. They are speaking lies."
Meanwhile, the PTI and PML-Q's Chaudhry Parvez Elahi have also approached the Lahore High Court (LHC) for declaring Hamza's election as "illegal" in light of the SC's interpretation.
The ECP had reserved its verdict on the reference on May 17, stating that it would be announced the next day (Wednesday) at 12pm. However, the announcement was later postponed.
Following Hamza's election as the chief minister on April 16, the PTI had sent a declaration for declaring the 25 MPAs as defectors to Punjab Assembly Speaker Elahi, who was also the PTI-PML-Q's joint candidate for the CM Office.
Subsequently, Elahi had sent the reference to the ECP, urging it to de-seat these lawmakers for defecting from the PTI by casting their votes in Hamza's favour in violation of party directions.
Most of the 25 dissident MPAs tried to justify their action of voting in favour of Hamza by claiming that they had received no directives from the party. They raised procedural objections and claimed they never received any show-cause notices — a mandatory requirement.
However, PTI's counsel, Barrister Ali Zafar, argued that the MPAs were issued instructions by the party's chief whip in the Punjab Assembly, as well as, Secretary General Asad Umar through a letter.
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".
According to the Article, any party that is aggrieved with the Election Commission's decision can file an appeal in the Supreme Court within a month. The apex court has 90 days to decide the matter.
Additional reporting by Rana Bilal.