• Ashraf writes to top judge on lawmakers’ demand, says legislature will approve expenses for polls in next budget
• Says three-judge bench’s orders disregard constitutional process, confrontation hurts national interest
• Bilawal suggests ‘contempt of parliament proceedings’
• PTI MNAs restrained from entering Parliament House
ISLAMABAD: Amid the ongoing judiciary-executive tussle on the issue of Punjab polls and demands from ruling coalition lawmakers, National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Wednesday wrote a letter to Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial, conveying “profound concerns” of the elected representatives over recent Supreme Court orders and some comments by judges, terming them an “encroachment” on parliament’s domain.
Through the five-page letter, released to the media by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, the speaker asked the apex court to “as far as possible, avoid getting involved in the political thicket”, saying that “it is best to leave the resolution of political matters by the parliament and the political parties”.
Mr Ashraf urged the CJP and Supreme Court judges “to exercise restraint and respect the legislative domain of the parliament”.
The speaker wrote that the National Assembly “strongly feels that these recent decisions amount to encroachment upon two core constitutional functions of the Assembly — lawmaking and power of the purse”.
He drew the CJP’s attention to various articles of the Constitution that vest powers related to a money bill exclusively in the National Assembly and confer power and authority to approve expenditure from the Federal Consolidated Fund (FCF) on the elected members.
“I write to convey the profound concern and deep unease of the NA with the orders passed by a 3-member SC bench on April 14 and 19 directing the State Bank of Pakistan and Finance Division to allocate/release Rs21 billion to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)” as “these orders have been passed notwithstanding that such release has expressly been forbidden by the NA”, he said.
“It is sadly noted that the 3-member bench’s orders have completely disregarded the constitutional process and the prerogative of the Assembly with respect to financial matters,” Mr Ashraf said, adding that the Supreme Court has ignored the National Assembly resolution and the rejection of the bill seeking allocations for the election funds and the recommendation of the National Assembly finance committee in this regard.
The courts had the power to interpret the Constitution, but it did not include rewriting the Constitution or undermining the parliament’s sovereignty, the speaker said, apparently referring to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 63-A at the time of the election of Punjab chief minister last year.
Referring to some of the reported remarks of the judges, the speaker said the rejection of the funds did not constitute a loss of confidence of the National Assembly in the federal government or the prime minister.
“I am also to convey to you the sense of the House that an unnecessary confrontation, deeply damaging to the national interest, is being created by the repeated orders to release funds to the ECP,” he said, adding: “The NA will approve the expenditure for the general elections to all the assemblies in the annual budget for the next financial year.
Earlier in the session, lawmakers from the ruling coalition termed the recent orders of the Supreme Court “an insult to parliament”.
As the lower house met after a week-long Eid recess, treasury members continued their tirade against judges and PPP Chairman and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari went to the extent of suggesting initiation of “contempt of parliament proceedings” against them.
The coalition partners, who had come to the house after attending a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, took the floor one by one and, after hitting out at the judiciary, extended their complete support to PM Shehbaz and asked him to stay “firm” on the issue of “supremacy of the parliament.”
The lawmakers, including federal ministers, alleged that the SC’s decision of “re-writing” the Constitution while interpreting Article 63-A was the root cause of the present crisis.
The members also questioned the logic behind the insistence on the polls within 90 days only in Punjab and not in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, stating that this showed that it was a “political battle” to gain control on the country’s largest province.
Apparently, under a planned strategy, the speaker first allowed Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar to move a motion seeking to suspend Question Hour and then opened the floor to members to deliver speeches without taking up other agenda items, which included two calling-attention notices regarding “increase in the rent of gas meter from Rs40 to Rs517” and “rising inflation”.
Opening the debate, the law minister gave an overview of the present situation and told the house that the federal cabinet had, in its meeting earlier in the day, reviewed the April 19 SC order and decided to refer the issue of the polls in Punjab once again to the parliament ahead of the taking up of the case by the SC on Thursday (today).
Taking the floor in the prime minister’s presence, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar ridiculed the SC move to directly order the SBP to release Rs21bn, stating that the SBP had no authority to disburse any amount. He said they would have to spend an additional Rs14.4bn if the elections were not held simultaneously in the country.
Mr Bhutto Zardari said the PPP was ready to send a team under Raza Rabbani to the judges to remove their confusion, if any, about the Constitution.
The foreign minister said he was “shocked and horrified” to learn that an institution was asking the government to ignore the parliament and accept a minority decision.
“Mr Speaker, only a letter will not be sufficient. If the judiciary is ridiculing and undermining this House [National Assembly], if it is insinuating that we take an unconstitutional step …… and if you go through the latest SC order, then in the eyes of the PPP, it is a contempt of the parliament. It is a breach of privilege,” he said, adding: “How can an institution take it upon itself to order us to abrogate the Constitution and not listen to the Parliament?”
PTI MNAs restrained
Before the NA sitting began, PTI MNAs from Karachi reached Parliament House to participate in the assembly proceedings, but they were stopped by police at the entrance.
The MNAs, who had resigned from the assembly last year, had been trying to attend the NA sittings for the past many days after the Sindh High Court suspended the ECP notification to de-seat them. In a statement on Wednesday, the NA Secretariat said since the SHC order did not touch the speaker’s decision, the MNAs could not attend the session as he had already accepted their resignations.
In their attempts to enter Parliament House, some of the MNAs also scuffled with policemen, but left the premises after staging a brief sit-in.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2023