PM doubles down on same-day polls, says arbitration not SC’s job

Published April 26, 2023
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addresses the federal cabinet on Wednesday. — Photo courtesy Government of Pakistan Twitter
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addresses the federal cabinet on Wednesday. — Photo courtesy Government of Pakistan Twitter

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Wednesday said “arbitration” was not the Supreme Court’s (SC) job and such matters should be discussed in parliament, asserting that the federal coalition was united on its stance that polls should be held across the country on the same day.

The premier passed these remarks while addressing the federal cabinet hours after holding an important meeting with coalition partners to discuss the possibility of talks with the opposition PTI and the date of the Punjab polls set by the top court.

The meeting was attended by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Foreign Minister and PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and other important members of the federal coalition.

It was held ahead of the SC’s April 26 deadline for the political parties to hold talks and evolve a consensus on the date for elections to the provincial and national assemblies. The apex court will resume hearing the case tomorrow (Thursday).

At the outset of his speech today, PM Shehbaz said the challenges faced by the government in the last few months were taken to parliament.

“The National Assembly and the joint house have dealt with these challenges, regarding the matters of the SC, through constitutional and legal measures,” he said. “But the situation remains challenging.”

The premier recalled that parliament had rejected the decision of a three-member SC bench in the Punjab elections delay case and asserted that the federal government’s stance had not changed even today.

On April 4, a three-member bench of the apex court quashed the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to delay the elections in the province from April 30 to October 8, ruling that the move was “unconstitutional, without lawful authority or jurisdiction, void ab-initio, [and] of no legal effect”.

During his address today, the PM said: “The government believes in the majority decision of the four judges.

“But the SC is still trying to take things forward with the same three-member bench,” PM Shehbaz said. “And this is why we have gathered here today — to reiterate our decision.”

He said the top court’s decisions were dealt with by parliament previously as well, adding that the same should be done now too.

“This is our moral and political responsibility to respect the decisions previously taken by Parliament,” the PM stated, adding that it was important to highlight these matters.

“The decision [regarding talks] has to be taken by parliament, not you or me,” he pointed out.

Referring to the SC’s direction to the government and opposition regarding talks, he said that the apex court’s “job is not arbitration, but their job is to give orders as per the Constitution and law”.

“Hence, decisions regarding whether elections should be held and if they should be held on one day … regarding this there is complete unity in the allied parties … on Aug 13, the assembly will complete its term and polls will be held on a date following the completion of 90 days.”

PM Shehbaz contended that it was important to tell the public that the PTI, instead of helping the government solve the current challenges, had exploited the situation.

He mentioned PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s claims of foreign conspiracy and termed his party’s efforts to “derail the International Monetary Fund programme” as impediments to the smooth running of the country.

But, the PM continued, everyone from the finance minister to the foreign minister combined efforts to defeat the crisis, adding that Pakistan’s situation had considerably improved today.

The premier stated that “all-out efforts were made to spread anarchy in the country and create division in society”.

“Even the Pakistan Army and its leadership were not spared. Some PTI agents outside Pakistan, who are enemies of the country, played a role that even an enemy won’t play … they issued such statements and tweets that are unimaginable,” he claimed.

The PM said that there was an “overwhelming” opinion that “the doors of dialogue should not be closed” but highlighted that its format was yet to be decided.

“There is also an opinion that we can convey our stance to them [the opposition] via the National Assembly speaker and then a parliamentary committee can take up the matter so that the nation can know that this allied government has made all-out efforts to ensure that everyone agrees on one-day polls,” he said, adding that the federal coalition never made anything a matter of ego, unlike the PTI.

‘Disobeying the Constitution’

Responding to the premier’s iteration of the ruling coalition’s stance on elections, PTI leaders criticised the government for what they described as defying the Constitution.

PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry noted in a tweet that while the prime minister had been saying that elections should be held in October, the Constitution dictated that polls should be held within 90 days of dissolution of assemblies.

In order to postpone the polls till October, he suggested that the federal cabinet may refer its decision to parliament and amend the Constitution by votes of the two-third majority of the house.

“Else, hold the elections in Punjab and KP in line with the Supreme Court’s order,” he said, adding that the matter of the federation was secondary.

The PTI leader said, “The Constitution cannot be suspended by mere statements and resolutions. This attitude of disobeying the Constitution is unacceptable.”

Along similar lines, PTI leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi tweeted: “In the best interests of our country and people, we were willing to sit down for talks, to develop a political consensus within the ambit of the Constitution.

“But clearly, this government is not sincere. The PTI will continue to follow the Constitution and the Supreme Court judgement. Elections, now!”

Impasse on elections

These statements come against the backdrop of an impasse regarding elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab — where the provincial assemblies were dissolved earlier this year. While the PTI has been adamant about holding polls in the provincial legislatures, the government maintains its stance on holding polls across the country on the same day.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court (SC) — while hearing a PTI petition — had directed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold general elections to the Punjab Assembly on May 14. However, the government had rejected the apex court’s orders.

After repeated back and forth last week, the SC on Thursday afforded a temporary respite to the country’s main political parties, giving them time till April 26 to develop a consensus on the date for elections to the provincial and national assemblies, so they could be held simultaneously across the country. The apex court will resume the hearing tomorrow (April 27).

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