The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Monday instructed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to notify PTI members on five reserved seats of the Punjab Assembly (PA) that fell vacant following the de-seating of 25 PTI lawmakers over defection.
Last month, 25 PTI dissident lawmakers, which included five elected on seats reserved for women and minorities, were de-seated for voting for PML-N's Hamza Shehbaz in the Punjab chief minister's election. They were officially de-notified by the ECP on May 23.
The PTI had filed a petition in the LHC on May 28 requesting it to direct the electoral watchdog to notify the five new MPAs and "summon [them] personally". Subsequently, the high court had given the ECP a deadline for June 2 to decide the matter.
The commission had, however, decided that the notification would be stayed until by-elections were held in the province on July 17.
Arguments made in the case today
During the open court hearing today, PTI's lawyer Ali Zafar argued that the electoral body was bound to notify PTI members on the reserved seats after de-seating defecting lawmakers.
"The list provided by political parties are not subject to change," he said. He recalled that when the PTI had approached the commission for notifying their members on the five reserved seats, the ECP had contended that the de-seating of 20 members had changed the total number of seats for each party.
The lawyer contended that this stance by the commission was "illegal".
Punjab Advocate General Shahzad Shaukat said that nominations on reserved seats were supposed to be held after the general polls.
"Now, the positions of parties have changed because of 20 vacant seats. I believe the matter should be taken to a larger bench," he added.
Subsequently, the LHC directed the ECP to issue a notification regarding the reserved seats and declared its previous decision on the matter "null and void".
Speaking to Dawn.com outside the courtroom, Zafar said that the LHC's decision had "changed the numbers game" in the provincial assembly. After the notification of the five reserved seats, the PTI will become the majority party, he said.
"This means that the existing chief minister will now have to take a vote of confidence because the numbers are greater on our end," the PTI's counsel said.
In its petition filed on June 3, Zainab Umair, wife of PTI MPA Umair Khan Niazi, said that according to Article 104 (5) of the Election Act, 2017, "Where a seat reserved for women or non-Muslims in an Assembly falls vacant as a result of death, resignation or disqualification of a member, it shall be filled in by the next person in order of precedence from the party's list of candidates submitted to the Commission."
The petition stated that no by-elections for disqualified members of Punjab Assembly were needed for the aforementioned (reserved) seats. "The party list was already in the possession of ECP; therefore, it was needed that ECP issue the notifications to the declared/elected MPAs for the 5 Reserve Seats."
Zainab contended that the order of ECP "clearly shows its bias and prejudice against the petitioner (PTI) and the advantages ECP is adamant upon providing to the PML-N".
"Its order is an erroneous assumption of jurisdiction as ECP does not possess the power or authority to interpret the Constitution as vested with the Honourable Courts of Pakistan," she added.
ECP de-seats dissident MPAs
The votes of the 25 PTI dissidents had been instrumental in helping Hamza get over the line in the election for the chief minister; he received a total of 197 votes while 186 votes are required for a simple majority.
The dissident lawmakers were 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.
On May 20, the electoral watchdog had passed an order to de-seat these lawmakers, stating that they had defected from the party under Article 63-A of the Constitution, which bars lawmakers from voting against the party line in the election of prime minister and chief minister, in a vote of confidence or no-confidence, a Constitution amendment bill and a money bill.
Punjab numbers game
During the April 16 election, Hamza had bagged 197 votes, including 25 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. The fifth independent MPA, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has so far distanced himself from the entire political drama.
At the time, the magic number required to show majority was 186 in the 371-strong house.
The PTI originally had 183 members in the house which was reduced to 158 with the defection of 25 lawmakers. With the addition of 10 PML-Q's lawmakers, their numbers stood at 168. But with the LHC's verdict today, the numbers of the PTI-PML-Q alliance will rise to 173.
On the other hand, with 25 PTI dissidents no longer part of the house, Hamza's tally was trimmed to 172. However, since the Punjab CM election, the PML-N has been trying to win back its rebel MPAs in a bid to strengthen the party’s position in PA. So far, the party has won back three of the five rebel MPAs.
As the situation stands, the total strength of the house is 351 with the PTI-PML-Q alliance with a total strength of 173 and the PML-N with a total strength of 175. Seemingly, neither party holds the majority in the house.
Ultimately, the by-elections on the 20 vacant seats scheduled for July 17 will decide which party ends up with the majority in the PA.