THE Supreme Court’s order to hold a re-election for the office of chief minister of Punjab on July 22 may have temporarily settled the ongoing battle for power between the PML-N-led ruling coalition and the opposition PTI-PML-Q, but it might have also created more constitutional and legal complexities.
For many, the decision appears to represent more of a ‘political compromise’ than a strictly legal interpretation.
The court ruled on a petition filed by the opposition alliance against a majority Lahore High Court judgement that restored the status quo ante for a vote recount — without the votes of 25 PTI defectors — in the Punjab chief minister’s election on April 16, besides ordering a run-off election for the top office in case neither candidate secured the House majority of 186 members.
The Lahore High Court verdict was guided by the Supreme Court’s ruling given in May in a presidential reference that the votes of dissident or defecting lawmakers “cast against their parliamentary party’s directives” in the election for the offices of the prime minister and chief ministers, or on the money bill, cannot be counted under Article 63(A) of the Constitution.
The Lahore High Court was applying the top court’s decision ‘retrospectively’ when it restored the status quo ante to order a vote recount. The Lahore High Court decision did not question the validity or legality of the election per se.
Though the detailed judgement is yet to come, the top court on Friday apparently invalidated the entire proceedings of the provincial assembly and election of the chief minister held on April 16 under yet another Lahore High Court order.
That is not all. Since the re-election will be held five days after the by-polls on 20 seats that have fallen vacant after the disqualification of PTI defectors who voted for Hamza Shehbaz, the new chief minister will now be elected by a new, reconstituted House with a changed electoral college. Some legal experts say there is no provision for this in the Constitution.
Perhaps the decision in this case should have been based on the merits of the law rather than what is seen to be a compromise resolution of the dispute between the rival parties.
With the latest verdict, the judiciary seems to have unintentionally entered the political arena, which is not desirable. Politically, the decision is likely to prolong the prevalent uncertainty in the province.
Punjab has been in the grip of one crisis after another, with the fledgling Hamza Shehbaz government focusing primarily on its survival. The crisis has weakened governance in the province, with those in authority unsure of where they stand. Will the outcome of the upcoming by-polls and re-election of the chief minister cool political temperatures and end the political uncertainty? We see little chance of that happening anytime soon.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2022