Uncertainty in Punjab

Published June 19, 2022

WHILE a healthy amount of rain in Lahore and other Punjab cities during the last couple of days broke the unprecedented heatwave that had been enveloping the province for the past several weeks, political temperatures keep surging. With the ongoing crisis showing no signs of abating, more legal and constitutional complications are emerging by the day as the fledgling Hamza Shehbaz government struggles to find its footing in uncertain conditions.

A report in this newspaper yesterday raised doubts over the legal status of the ordinance issued by the Punjab governor because it was promulgated when the provincial assembly was still in session. The ordinance took away the speaker’s powers to call or prorogue a session, and placed the assembly under the law secretary. It was issued after Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, driven by political rivalry, stalled the presentation of next year’s budget for two consecutive days, putting the government in a spot. If the opposition PTI and PML-Q challenge it in court — as they are planning to do — and if it is found to not have the law’s backing, the ordinance’s cancellation could invalidate all actions including the summoning of a new session by the law secretary and the budget’s presentation and passage under it, creating yet another crisis. That the law secretary had started using his new powers as ‘custodian of the House’ even before the ordinance’s promulgation was notified makes legal matters for the government worse. Meanwhile, the PML-N-led ruling coalition and the PTI-PML-Q combine are conducting separate sessions, with little clarity as to which one is according to the law.

That the opposition has made the country’s political heartland, Punjab, the centre of its war with the ruling coalition, which came to power after ousting Imran Khan through a vote of no-confidence in April, is understandable. Political control of Pakistan’s most populous province is crucial for both rivals for deciding the timing of the next general elections and winning them. No wonder the opposition is using every trick up its sleeve to frustrate the ruling coalition, pressuring it into making mistakes. The presentation of next year’s budget was a major challenge for the Hamza Shehbaz government and the speaker used every ruse to prevent the finance minister to make his budget speech. The political fortunes of both sides in the province depend on the outcome of the July 17 by-elections on 20 provincial seats across the province as the results will determine which side holds a simple majority of 186 members in the full House. The opposition must win at least 15 seats to recapture power in the province from the PML-N and its partners. If it fails to muster the required numbers, it will likely keep looking for ways and means to create political instability and make it difficult for the coalition to focus on governing effectively.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2022

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