SC suspends LHC order against RO appointments, orders ECP to issue election schedule tonight

Published December 15, 2023
A photo from a Supreme Court hearing on Friday night. — DawnNewsTV
A photo from a Supreme Court hearing on Friday night. — DawnNewsTV

The Supreme Court (SC) on Friday suspended a Lahore High Court (LHC) order that had stayed the appointment of returning officers (ROs) and district returning officers (DROs) from the bureaucracy, and further directed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to issue the election schedule by tonight.

The order came after a three-member SC bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa and also comprising Justices Mansoor Ali Shah and Sardar Tariq Masood heard an ECP petition challenging the LHC ruling.

The development comes a day after the ECP paused a training session for ROs and DROs — an exercise without which polls on February 8 could have been in trouble.

The ECP’s move had come in response to an LHC order suspending the electoral watchdog’s notification regarding the appointment of ROs and DROs from the bureaucracy.

The high court order, which was issued on a petition submitted by the PTI, seemingly brought the electoral process to a standstill, causing widespread concern among political parties — including the petitioner PTI — regarding general elections.

While announcing the verdict, LHC’s Justice Ali Baqar Najafi had referred the PTI petition to the chief justice with a request to constitute a larger bench to decide the matter.

In its petition in the high court, the PTI had contested the appointments of bureaucrats to act as DROs and ROs for the upcoming general elections and sought the appointment of officials from the lower judiciary for the poll exercise.

The hearing

Dictating the order for today’s hearing, CJP Isa said the LHC order stood suspended and additionally halted all proceedings on the PTI petition in the high court.

He said the LHC judge had intervened the operations of electoral officers “with a [mere] stroke of a pen” and had “failed to realise” that they would be performing their duties throughout the country.

He said the LHC judge had acted “well beyond” the high court’s territorial jurisdiction and “in undue haste at the eleventh hour”.

The top judge rebuked PTI’s Barrister Niazi, adding that he was expected to be cognisant of the Constitution and the law but also read the Supreme Court’s Nov 3 verdict which said that “no one should be allowed to, on any pretext, derail democracy.

“However, one individual appears to have done just that and it is indeed a matter of considerable regret that he claims to belong to a political party.”

He ordered for the PTI plea to be forwarded to the apex court to determine its maintainability, saying that the SC would hear the petition itself if it deemed it appropriate. “The petition as filed appears not to be maintainable,” the top judge observed.

CJP Isa also instructed the ECP to “do its job” and issue the election schedule by tonight.

The top judge also ordered that a show-cause notice be issued to PTI’s Barrister Umair Khan Niazi, seeking an explanation as to why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him.

The hearing was subsequently adjourned for an indefinite time after notices were issued to the federal and provincial governments and the ECP petition was admitted for hearing.

Earlier, ECP lawyer Sajeel Swati came on the rostrum to present his arguments.

The chief justice questioned him whether a larger LHC bench was constituted to hear the matter to which the ECP counsel responded that one was formed for Monday.

Coming to the petition by PTI additional secretary general Barrister Umair Khan Niazi, the chief justice questioned if elections could be halted across the whole country just on the basis of his plea.

Instructing Swati to read out the apex court’s Nov 3 order which had stressed that elections would take place on Feb 8, CJP Isa said: “Shall we issue a contempt notice? … Barrister Umair Khan Niazi’s [petition] is a violation of the Supreme Court order.”

PTI under fire from PPP, PML-N after court order

PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif welcomed the apex court’s order as a “milestone for the protection of democracy and the Constitution in the country.

“The Supreme Court failed PTI’s conspiracy against democracy and the Constitution. PTI’s attempt to escape from the elections has failed. It became clear that PTI was running away from the election.”

PPP leader Sherry Rehman also criticised the PTI for needlessly involving the Supreme Court in affairs.

“Their strategy is to make the elections controversial before they are held. They don’t need neutrals but PTI umpires in the elections.”

Meanwhile, lawyer and social activist Jibran Nasir criticised the issuance of a show-cause notice to PTI’s Barrister Niazi.

Major political parties to become party in case being heard by LHC

Meanwhile, major political parties — including the PPP, PML-N and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) — decided to become a party in the case being heard by the LHC.

In a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) today, PML-N Central Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb said the party had decided to approach the LHC to ensure the timely conduct of elections on Feb 8.

“The PML-N will be a party against the LHC’s decision regarding ROs,” she wrote on X, adding that the party’s legal team had begun preparing a petition in this regard.

The PPP announced that it would file a plea in the LHC seeking to become a party in the case.

PPP Senator Farooq Naek expressed hope that the Supreme Court would suspend the LHC order.

“Otherwise, we will present our stance on the larger bench [of the LHC] that democracy should not be derailed at any cost,” he said while speaking to Geo News.

Naek said all speculation would end if the Supreme Court suspended the LHC stay order.

“Our party, Bilawal [Bhutto Zardari] and former president Asif Zardari have the same stance that polls should take place on Feb 8 at any cost,” he said, adding that the apex court, President Dr Arif Alvi and even the chief election commissioner had agreed to hold the polls.

Naek said ROs and DROs fell under the authority of the ECP. He termed all that was happening as a tactic to delay the polls.

“If elections don’t take place on time, it will not be good for democracy and economic stability,” he added.

“Our first wish is that the judiciary gives its officers for the polls, additional session judges, session judge, and senior judges so that they become ROs and DROs.”

Naek concluded that if judicial officers were not available, the bureaucracy was the second option “but our first preference is that judiciary supervises the elections”.

Meanwhile, a statement from BAP’s Khalid Magsi said he had directed his party to prepare a petition seeking to become a party in the case.

PTI accused of delaying polls

Earlier, Rehman said rumours of a delay in elections had started doing the rounds after the LHC announced its decision on the PTI petition.

“Due to the order, the ECP suspended its training sessions for ROs and DRO,” she noted, alleging that PTI’s “double standards” had delayed the release of the election schedule. “Who is responsible for this?” Rehman asked.

“The PTI has once again tried to derail the electoral process,” the PPP leader claimed. “This reflects their undemocratic and apolitical mindset. It is clear that the PTI does not want elections to be held in the country.”

Rehman reiterated that the PPP was fully prepared for polls and expressed hope that the judiciary would resolve the matter soon.

Earlier in the day, PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal had accused the PTI of “conspiring to sabotage elections” in the country. “This proves that they can see their future, they can see defeat in polls and to save themselves from this defeat, they are trying to delay the elections,” he claimed.

Iqbal demanded that elections should be held on time to bring the country out of uncertainty. He called the PTI petition in LHC a “suicide attack”, claiming that its purpose was to delay polls.

“We won’t let the PTI run away from elections,” he asserted. “We urge the ECP and the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take all necessary actions needed to hold elections on time,” Iqbal added.

February 8 polls hit a snag after LHC ruling

Earlier, an ECP official told Dawn that the announcement of the election schedule depended on the final verdict in the case related to the appointment of DROs and ROs.

“The ROs are the ones who issue public notices inviting nominations and also receive and scrutinise nomination papers. An election schedule cannot be issued in the absence of ROs,” he had said. “In fact, it is the job of the ROs to implement the schedule,” the ECP official explained.

The official said the appointment of ROs was made as per the law, as he expressed surprise over the court ruling, which came on late Wednesday night.

He said another hurdle was the delimitation cases being remanded to the election watchdog by the high courts for reconsideration. The official claimed that the judiciary, not the ECP, would be responsible in case elections were delayed.

However, the official said that intervention from the Supreme Court could dissipate the uncertainty surrounding elections in the wake of these recent developments, but an ECP spokesperson rejected reports that it planned to approach the apex court against the LHC order.

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