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‘Unconstitutional and contemptuous’: Legal experts vehemently disagree with ECP’s delaying of Punjab polls

Civil society also critical of electoral body's decision to put off polls in Punjab by more than five months despite SC's orders to contrary.
Published March 23, 2023

In a surprising development, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Wednesday put off Punjab Assembly elections by more than five months to Oct 8, citing the “deteriorating security situation” in the country.

The commission said that after considering the reports, briefing and material brought before it, it concluded that it is impossible to hold and organise the elections — originally scheduled for April 30 — “honestly, justly, fairly, in a peaceful manner and in accordance with the Constitution and law”.

The electoral watchdog’s postponement of the polls came despite the Supreme Court, in its March 1 verdict, having clearly ruled that the elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies should be held within the stipulated period of 90 days, although it had allowed the “barest minimum” deviation, in case of any practical difficulty.

As expected, the legal fraternity was critical of the ECP’s decision and deemed it contemptuous.

Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii told Dawn.com that the reasoning given by the ECP “looks like an attempt to evade its constitutional responsibility to hold elections within the 90-day timeline”.

“This evasion has been allowed for by the malicious compliance of a Supreme Court order that should have been clearer and should have had the strength of a full court behind it,” he said.

“In allowing for a minimum deviation from the 90 days, the court was actually doing so [allowing for the deviation] because the matter had already been delayed to a point where the 90-day deadline couldn’t have been met. To use this as supposed wiggle room to delay the elections by half a year is to maliciously misinterpret the order of the court,” he said.

“Among the excuses used to thwart the will of the people is the idea that police are busy with law and order and a terrorist wave is resurgent.

“The police are always busy with law and order and we have had far worse terrorism before. The will of the people and their right to express it collectively is the paramount function of a democracy. The gatekeeper of this function acting so tardily about the process of elections is contemptuous disregard of their constitutional mandate,” he said.

“And the truth is clear for all to see. We all know why we suddenly don’t have money for elections and why everyone is suddenly busy elsewhere. It’s what Imran Khan calls the London plan,” he added.

Barrister Asad Rahim Khan called it “violative of the Constitution, a mockery of the law, and contemptuous of the Supreme Court.”

“It’s also destructive for democracy. This goes beyond voting preferences now: the principle — of the freedom to elect one’s representatives — is at stake,” he tweeted.

Lawyer Reema Omer said that the “ECP’s interpretation of SC’s ‘barest minimum’ deviation as permission to postpone Punjab Assembly elections by 5-6 months, and its cynical use of Article 254 to justify defiance of a clear constitutional stipulation are both legally flawed and disingenuous.”

Senior Supreme Court advocate Salman Raja was “disgusted” with the ECP’s decision and called it “another dark moment in our sad history”.

Barrister Muhammad Ahmad Pansota deemed the decision “illegal and unconstitutional”, adding that it “merits suo moto action”.

He recalled Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial’s remarks from a day ago wherein he warned that the top court would intervene in case of any ill-will in holding “transparent elections”.

Zahid F. Ebrahim, another Supreme Court advocate, found “merit in the argument” to hold national and provincial assemblies’ elections on the same date, but still said that “the ECP decision and justification to postpone elections for the Punjab Assembly is unconvincing.”

In addition to legal experts, members of civil society were also critical of the ECP’s decision.

Senior journalist Mazhar Abbas doubted that the ECP’s decision would last, calling the move “unconstitutional”.

Mosharraf Zaidi, CEO of advisory services firm Tabadlab, called it a “deliberate and malafide violation of the Constitution”.

“A timely, free and fair election remains the only legal way forward,” he said. “Those behind this manoeuvre will not hesitate to postpone the general election either. This is a formula for further disarray.”

Former diplomat Maleeha Lodhi said that if the ECP’s logic and justification were to be followed, then “democracy and elections can be suspended indefinitely due to the ‘deteriorating security’ situation as determined by executive authorities”.

“All eyes on the Supreme Court now,” she added.

Author and journalist Zahid Hussain also called the ECP’s decision “a violation of the constitution and the order of the Supreme Court”.

“It’s [the] beginning of new despotism,” he added.