• Court says it cannot backtrack on May 14 polls order, issues notices to political parties for today’s hearing
• Asks PTI counsel to ‘commit to political process’; notes ‘time is short’ for dialogue to settle election dispute

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court said on Wednesday it was ready to show flexibility, provided political parties came to a consensus on elections, but at the same time made it clear that it was difficult for the court to go back on its order fixing May 14 as the date for elections to the Punjab Assembly.

A three-judge SC bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial, also issued notices to the PTI, PML-N, PPP, JUI-F, MQM-P, BNP-Mengal, Awami National Party, Balochistan Awami Party, PML-Q, the law secretary, Election Comm­ission of Pakistan (ECP), Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Mansoor Usman Awan and Jamaat-i-Islami, asking the parties to send their senior office-bearers for today’s (Thursday’s) hearing.

In view of the time constraints, the court office was ordered to send the notices through different modes provided in the law, including special messenger, as well as through electronic and print media.

The notices were issued on a hurriedly moved petition by a citizen, Sardar Kashif Khan, highlighting the alternative means of a political dialogue for ending the impasse on the issue of holding elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies.

During the hearing, AGP Awan informed the Supreme Court about his meeting with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, saying there was a realisation about political engagement to cool down the prevalent political temperature.

He asked for time, since the PML-N as well as the PPP have constituted their respective committees to hold dialogue with the PTI and said it was his understanding that the latter had also formed a three-member committee.

He also recalled that the JI emir has already met the prime minister and PTI chief Imran Khan.

The CJP described the AGP’s statement as “well received” and observed that what the top law officer stating was that the political process, which was in a state of paralysis, has resumed with engagements with the opposition.

However, the top judge highlighted the importance of May 14, saying the date was round the corner and that the 90-day constitutional obligation should also be respected and complied with.

“I don’t think this court can postpone the date for long,” the CJP observed, but noted the resistance by the ECP, federal government and defence ministry to compliance with the April 4 order fixing May 14 as the election date, observing that the grounds of their reservations highlighted in their reports were not germane to the present petition.

Political process

During the hearing, senior counsel Faisal Fareed, who was present in the courtroom, was asked by the bench if his party was interested in political dialogue.

The counsel conceded that there was a meeting between JI emir Sirajul Haq and PTI Chairman Imran Khan, but also regretted the arrest of party leaders as well as threatening statements by Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan issued on a daily basis.

The CJP observed that when a political process would begin, the court would bind the ECP to provide level playing field to every political party.

Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan asked the counsel to seek specific instructions in line with the observation made in the court.

The CJP observed that the court was trying to create a conducive atmosphere, wondering whether the PTI wants conflict on the streets or peaceful elections. He acknowledged that without certain provisions, elections would become a battlefield.

“We understand your personal hurt but you (PTI) have to commit to the political process,” CJP observed, adding that the PTI cannot sit outside the field and dictate terms.

Justice Ahsan observed that both sides have to adopt confidence-building measures and then have to act in that spirit.

Meanwhile, Advocate Shah Khawar argued that for ensuring peaceful, honest, just and fair elections, there must be mutual respect and understanding among the political parties that participate in the general elections.

Historically, the counsel contended, holding of simultaneous elections to the national and four provincial assemblies has secured a more durable outcome than the staggered elections held in 1970 and 1977 as were being envisaged presently for the two provincial assemblies.

Prima facie, the court said, the submission made by the counsel appeared to have substance because elections were contested in the political arena and these can be best conducted with the feedback and input of all electoral political forces in the country that would contest such elections.

However, the court said it considered that the alternative route proposed by the counsel cannot operate to negate or erase the date fixed by the court in its April 4 judgement for holding elections to the Punjab Assembly which is in line with the dictates of the Constitution.

“This is for the reason that political dialogue must not be made a means for avoiding the imperative obligation under Articles 112 and 224 of the Constitution to hold the elections to the provincial assembly with 90 days of its dissolution,” the court observed.

Therefore, time is of the utmost essence in exploring the course suggested by the counsel, the Supreme Court said, adding that correspondingly, “we appreciate the initiative taken by the petitioner to propose the initiation of a political dialogue as a means for settling a practical and feasible date on which general elections, that satisfy the requirement of Article 218(3) of the Constitution, are held”.

During the hearing, the CJP mentioned his meeting with top military officials, saying they gave the judges a complete picture and the level of engagement of the forces to combat terrorism, but at the end, the CJP said he had humbly stated that the court cannot go backwards.

Hours later ANP leader Aimal Wali Khan tweeted his party refused to appear before the three-member bench, because “it has no credibility left. If ANP felt the need to talk to PTI, it will directly do so and not appear before its three member proxy team”.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2023

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