ISLAMABAD: Perhaps for the first time in the country’s parliamentary history, the National Assembly on Thursday rejected a money bill that the government had tabled to seek funds for conducting polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in line with Supreme Court’s orders.
Separately, the house adopted another strongly-worded resolution against the judiciary over attempts to “usurp the authority of the Parliament to legislate and interfere in its constitutional jurisdiction”.
The house rejected the Charged Sums for General Election (Provincial Assemblies of the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) Bill 2023 with a majority vote after Finance Minister Ishaq Dar informed the house that the standing committee had recommended not to approve the bill he introduced on April 10.
Earlier in the day, the government-dominated standing committees of both houses of the parliament had already rejected the bill in their separate meetings.
NA committee questions need for ‘unprecedented’ bill; lawmakers pass another resolution against judiciary
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also remained present in the house for most of the time as lawmakers, through a motion, allowed the government to table the bill through supplementary orders of the day.
Mohsin Leghari and Saleh Muhammad of the opposition PTI opposed the government’s expected move, as the ruling coalition had already publicly declared to defy the court’s order to hold the elections in Punjab, stating that the elections all over the country would be held simultaneously in October.
Mr Leghari, who also served as the finance minister in Punjab under the previous PTI government, was of the view that there was no need for the government to bring the law as it could provide funds to the ECP under Article 81 of the Constitution and that it could seek its approval at the time of the passage of the next budget as per the tradition.
Besides Mr Dar, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar also responded to the technical points raised by Mr Leghari and justified the government’s act of laying the bill before parliament.
On April 4, a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold elections for the Punjab Assembly on May 14 and directed the federal government to release Rs21 billion to the ECP for this purpose.
The court had set April 10 as the deadline for the release of the amount, asking the ECP to report back to it if it did not receive the funds.
Though under the Constitution and rules, it is incumbent upon the government to seek prior approval of the funds to be spent under “consolidated funds”, there has been a tradition that the governments seek approval for such allocations at the time of passage of the federal budget with retrospective effect.
The Supreme Court is set to take up the matter on Friday (today) after the ECP formally informed the judges about the non-release of funds by the government.
Meanwhile, the lower house of parliament passed a resolution expressing concerns over an attempt by the judiciary to “usurp the authority of the parliament to legislate and interfere in its constitutional jurisdiction” besides “condemning” the CJP’s act of constituting an eight-member bench “in haste” to take up the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill 2023 even before the completion of its legislative process and implementation.
The bill, seeking to clip the suo motu powers of the CJP, had been passed by the joint sitting of the parliament on April 10 after President Arif Alvi had refused to give his ceremonial assent to it.
This was the third such resolution in as many weeks targeting the judiciary for taking up the issue of elections in Punjab and KP through a suo motu notice.
Moving the resolution, Agha Rafiullah of the PPP stated that the parliament had absolute authority and powers to frame the Constitution and enact legislation. The resolution declared that there would be “no compromise on the supremacy of the Parliament in the light of the Constitution”.
The resolution also regretted the “non-inclusion of two senior judges from smaller provinces” — Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It demanded the dissolution of the bench, arguing that it had been formed before the completion of the legislative process.
Earlier, two hurriedly called meetings of the standing committees of both houses of the parliament on finance and revenue rejected the Charged Sums for General Election (Provincial Assemblies of the Punjab and the KP) Bill 2023.
It was clear from both meetings that the government was neither keen on allocating the Rs21bn ordered by the top court for elections in Punjab and KP, nor did committee members have any interest in supporting polls in the two provinces in the coming days and rest of the country in October.
The National Assembly’s standing committee on finance was presided over by Qaiser Shaikh of the ruling PML-N and the Senate committee was led by independent Senator Dilawar Khan.
Minister of State for Finance Dr Aisha Ghaus Pasha told members of both committees that Rs5bn had been allocated in the current year’s budget for election expenditure, but the Supreme Court had now ordered the release of Rs21bn.
“We do not have funds and we cannot increase the fiscal deficit beyond committed limits. We are in an IMF programme,” she said while responding to queries from the members.Mr Shaikh said he had never seen this kind of a money bill brought before the committee in the past and wondered what necessitated it.
PTI’s Senator Mohsin Aziz said the government should not have brought such a bill and instead should have provided funds for elections. “The intentions of the government are obvious — it wanted to delay elections at any cost,” he said.
The NA committee’s chairman ruled that when the government was saying it had no funds, the committee had no option but to reject it.
Some members also complained that they received telephone calls from “various people” to ensure their presence at the committee meetings.
Amir Wasim also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2023