An unending quagmire: The Punjab number game

With ECP de-seating 25 PTI lawmakers, the Punjab CM has lost his majority. looks at the current standing of the house.
Published May 20, 2022

After today's verdict of the Election Commission of Pakistan, which has de-seated the 25 PTI lawmakers who voted for Hamza Shehbaz in the election for chief minister, the number game in the Punjab Assembly has changed, with Hamza losing his majority.

During the April 16 election, Hamza had bagged 197 votes, including 25 Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) dissidents, four independents and the lone Rah-i-Haq Party MPA. Five rebel PML-N lawmakers had abstained from voting in favour of Hamza.

At the time, the magic number required to show majority was 186 in the 371-strong house.

The PTI-PML-Q alliance has a total of 168 votes (183-25+10). The fifth independent MPA, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has so far distanced himself from the entire political drama and is not expected to vote for either side.

Read: Hamza faces immediate threat to office: experts

Interestingly, the PTI-PML-Q alliance claims that out of the 25 dissident lawmakers who have been de-seated, five are those nominated on women and minorities seats, which means they will be nominated once again by the party and will not require a by-election. So, they argue, their total strength before a new CM election will be 173 members.

"Add five as three women and two minorities seats will be filled again,” Moonis Elahi of the PML-Q tweeted Wednesday.

On the other hand, with 25 PTI dissidents no longer part of the house, Hamza's tally has been trimmed to 172 votes — but so has the strength of the house, which has been cut short to 346 members.

According to lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii, this means that the magic number, required to show majority in the house, has also changed — from 186 to 174. That is because, he argues, Article 130(4) of the Constitution says: "The Chief Minister shall be elected by the votes of the majority of the total membership of the Provincial Assembly."

"Total membership should not be seen as total seats because the intention is to show a majority from among the current members," Jaferii said, adding that after the de-seating of 25 members, the "magic number will not remain 186".

However, Barrister Salahuddin said there was no court decision on how to interpret the words "total membership" in the Constitution. According to him, the number required to ensure majority in the house would remain at 186.

But irrespective of what the magic number may be — 186 or 174 — no side currently seems to have the required strength.

How can the govt be removed?

In this scenario, legal experts say, there are two ways through which the Punjab government could be removed. One way could be through a court order nullifying the April 16 election of chief minister in light of the Supreme Court's opinion on Article 63-A that says the votes of dissident lawmakers would not be counted. The PTI has already approached the Lahore High Court seeking the same.

If the high court allows for a retrospective application of the apex court verdict, it would mean that on April 16 no side was able to show a majority with Hamza's tally at 172 votes as opposed to 197 votes.

If this happens, Barrister Asad Rahim said, it would mean that the first round of voting, which has already taken place, did not result in any candidate attaining a majority. He said that as per Article 130 of the Constitution, the second round of voting would now take place and to be elected chief minister, a member simply needs a majority of those "present and voting" — not a majority of the total membership.

Barrister Salahuddin also echoed similar views, saying that a run-off election to decide the chief minister is the most likely outcome now.

The second route to removing the government could be through the Punjab governor, who could ask the chief minister to take a vote of confidence under Article 130(7) of the Constitution, which says:

"The Chief Minister shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor, but the Governor shall not exercise his powers under this clause unless he is satisfied that the Chief Minister does not command the confidence of the majority of the members of the Provincial Assembly, in which case he shall summon the Provincial Assembly and require the Chief Minister to obtain a vote of confidence from the Assembly."

But since there is no governor in place in Punjab after Omer Cheema was removed from office without the assent of the president, and the matter is sub judice in the Islamabad High Court, it appears that the governor asking the CM for a confidence vote is less likely.

What complicates the matter even more is that the federal government notification to remove Cheema as governor also mentioned that the Punjab Assembly speaker shall perform the functions of the governor till the appointment of an incumbent, in accordance with Article 104 of the Constitution. But Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, who is also the PTI-PML-Q joint candidate for chief minister, will have to vacate his office for taking over as acting governor, and Deputy Speaker Dost Muhammad Mazari was said to be inclined towards the PML-N.

Not to mention that the speaker and the deputy speaker are both facing no-confidence motions in the house.

The prime minister has advised President Arif Alvi to appoint PML-N leader Balighur Rehman as Punjab governor but so far Alvi has not acted on it. PML-N argues that on June 3, Rehman would become the Punjab governor under the law even if the president does not approve.

The battle over who gets to be the governor is critical because, according to the Constitution, it is the governor who can not only ask the chief minister to take a vote of confidence but in case the chief minister is removed over failing a confidence vote and no one is able to show a majority after that (which is currently the case), the governor could also dissolve the assembly under Article 112 (2), which states:

"The Governor may also dissolve the Provincial Assembly in his discretion, but subject to the previous approval of the President, where a vote of no-confidence having been passed against the Chief Minister, no other member of the Provincial Assembly commands the confidence of the majority of the members of the Provincial Assembly in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, as ascertained in a session of the Provincial Assembly summoned for the purpose."