The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Thursday suspended Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz's Roshan Gharana Programme — which aimed to provide free electricity to poor households — till July 17 when by-elections will be held on 20 Punjab Assembly seats.
Hamza had on Monday announced free electricity for households consuming up to 100 units from July under "Punjab Chief Minister Roshan Gharana Programme".
The relief programme is supposed to benefit, as claimed by the provincial government, an estimated nine million poor families — about half of the population of the province.
The announcement was made in the wake of a ban imposed by the ECP on initiating any development projects until the by-polls were out of the way.
The Election Commission had subsequently issued a notice to the provincial chief executive, seeking his reply for his alleged violation of the electoral code of conduct.
A three-member bench of the ECP, headed by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikander Sultan Raja, heard the matter today.
Hamza's counsel, Khalid Ishaq, submitted his response to the commission today and informed them that the programme did not cover the constituencies where by-elections would be held.
The programme was a part of the provincial budget announced last month, he said.
However, ECP Sindh member, Nisar Durrani, said that when the chief minister made such announcements during an election campaign, it would be considered an attempt to influence the outcome of the polls.
Ishaq responded that if the government wanted to influence election results, it would not have increased petrol prices.
At this, the ECP Sindh member pointed out that the provincial government did not have the authority to raise petrol prices.
Meanwhile, Chief Election Commissioner Raja questioned the need to make a new announcement when the programme had already been included in the provincial budget.
"The programme has been announced for those consuming 50 to 100 units of electricity because of the rise in inflation," Hamza's counsel argued.
ECP Director General of Law, Mohammad Arshad, noted that it was the commission's duty to ensure a level playing field for all parties. "The announcement of the Punjab government's programme is an attempt to influence the by-elections."
He called for the programme to be stopped since less than 10 days remained till the by-polls.
However, Ishaq argued that the consumers would benefit from the programme in August.
CEC Raja backed the DG Law's argument and said it was the Election Commission's duty to provide a level playing field for all parties.
Subsequently, the ECP suspended the programme till July 17.
The chief election commissioner said that action would be taken for violation of the electoral code of conduct in accordance with the law.
No development programmes should be announced till the by-elections, he directed.
"The Election Commission rejects all propaganda to make by-elections controversial. The Election Commission has more support from law enforcement agencies than ever before."
The by-elections in 20 constituencies in Punjab would be held in a transparent manner, he vowed.