• Parvez Elahi’s supporters number 187, Hamza Shehbaz camp has 179 members
• Both sides make hectic last-minute efforts to ensure numbers
• Zardari, Shujaat meet twice in span of few hours
• LHC asks Punjab IGP, CS to ensure all MPAs cast their votes safely and freely
LAHORE: All eyes are on today’s run-off election for the slot of Punjab chief minister as its outcome will set the tone for the future of the country’s politics, with the ruling alliance making last-ditch efforts to ensure it has the numbers to save its government. The opposition coalition, meanwhile, was busy trying to save its own lawmakers from any move to lure them towards defection.
With a clear majority in the Punjab Assembly after inflicting a crushing defeat on the ruling PML-N, the PTI-PML-Q alliance should apparently have no problem getting its candidate, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, elected to the CM’s office.
But, the PML-N and its ally PPP are in no mood to allow the opposition alliance smooth sailing, considering a lot more is at stake for them. Perhaps the most upsetting consequence of the defeat for the ruling coalition would be the difficulties this would pose for the Shehbaz Sharif government in the Centre; it will also provide an opportunity for ousted prime minister Imran Khan to build further pressure on the rulers to call fresh elections.
Currently, in the provincial house of 368, the opposition alliance (PTI-PML-Q) has 187 lawmakers and the PML-N-led ruling coalition 179. Hamza is certain to lose his office unless there is a change of heart on the part of opposition MPAs, because last-minute efforts by the PML-N and PPP are reportedly under way to purchase loyalties of as many PTI or PML-Q lawmakers as possible.
The PTI which appeared a little unnerved on Wednesday after the resignation of its MPA, Chaudhry Masood Ahmed from Rahim Yar Khan, seemed relieved on Thursday when no further defections from the party were reported. However, the opposition is still wary of the Sharifs’ ‘surprise moves’ on election day (today).
To save PM Shehbaz’s son, incumbent Chief Minister Hamza, the PML-N bigwigs on Thursday consulted their party’s legal brains to explore ‘some ways’ to save the provincial government in case the party does manage to cause the required number of defections. And that scenario seems likely.
It may not come as a surprise if the PML-N follows what the PTI did during the previous CM election three months ago. On April 16, the PA had descended into chaos, leaving many injured, including Parvez Elahi, and the house was taken over by law enforcement agencies. Hamza got elected after bagging 197 votes, including from 25 PTI dissidents. Subsequently, these 25 PTI lawmakers, including five reserved, were de-seated over defection and a by-election on 20 of these seats was held with the PTI clinching a sweeping victory with 15.
Former Punjab advocate general Ahmad Awais told Dawn the incumbent CM could have survived if he had more numbers than his opponent candidate. “Going by the party position, Hamza has no chance (unless the PTI-PML-Q number recedes because of defections). There is no legal point the PML-N can exploit nor delay or manipulate the election as it is under the direct scanner of the apex court,” he maintained.
Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker Dost Mazari of the PTI declared on Thursday that he would ensure a “free and fair” election for the top post of the province. He said he was entrusted by the Lahore High Court to conduct the election in accordance with law.
Meanwhile, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari pledged his party’s unequivocal support for the PML-N, denying his involvement in horse trading. “Why would I buy votes for Hamza? Had PPP’s Hasan Murtaza been a CM candidate in Punjab, I might have helped him,” he told party lawmakers.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah also claimed that not five but 50 PTI members could either vote against Elahi or abstain ‘for being politically conscious and aware’. He had earlier openly declared that around five to seven opposition MPAs might “disappear” on the voting day.
The lawmakers of both ruling and opposition alliances are lodged at separate hotels in Lahore. They would be transported to the PA together on Friday (today) for voting. The PTI and PML-Q activists are guarding their members in anticipation of any action by government agencies.
Separately, Mr Zardari met PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain twice within the span of a few hours on Thursday. Reportedly, Parvez Elahi and his son Moonis were also sent a message to join the meeting, but the father-son duo declined. The proposals apparently discussed during the two Shujaat-Zardari meetings were that either Elahi contests as the CM from the PML-N platform as a last resort or the PML-Q chief asks his party MPAs not to vote for the party candidate.
‘Facilitate MPAs to cast votes safely’
Meanwhile, the Lahore High Court ordered the Punjab chief secretary and inspector general of police to ensure that all MPAs cast their votes safely and freely in the CM’s election today.
Justice Aalia Neelum passed this order disposing of petitions of PTI MPAs Zainab Umair and Sibtain Khan.
Advocate Azhar Siddique, on behalf of the petitioners, said the only prayer of the petitioners was a direction to the police and administration to facilitate the MPAs to safely cast their votes without any harassment. He alleged PTI MPAs had faced harassment at the hands of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and other state functionaries.
However, Additional Advocate General Nasir Chohan submitted a reply on behalf of the police chief, saying no harassment had been caused or threat issued to the petitioners or any other member of the assembly.
The petitioner also contended there were apprehensions the interior minister could use the state machinery to sabotage the election for the chief minister.
Also on Thursday, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court Lahore bench challenging an LHC order that envisaged first recounting of votes cast in the April 16 election of the chief minister of Punjab excluding 25 votes of defecting MPAs and then a re-poll if no candidate got a majority.
Munir Ahmad, a lawyer by profession, filed the petition through Advocate Azhar Siddique, saying the impugned judgement was an error in the law as it rejected 25 votes and directed the presiding officer to recount votes. He argued that the bench ignored the distinction between ‘majority of the house’ of the original electorate and ‘simple majority of the house’, as after defection of 25 members, the present house did not constitute the same electorate that had earlier elected Hamza Shehbaz as the chief minister.
He said after notification of the five reserved seats and by-election victories, the present ‘majority of the house’ was not the same as that on April 16. The petitioner asked the apex court to declare that the impugned judgement was disproportionate and unreasonable, and order the presiding officer to simply conduct a fresh election for the chief minister.
Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2022