Peshawar High Court suspends ECP order stripping PTI’s ‘bat’ symbol

Published December 26, 2023
PTI leaders Ali Zafar and Barrister Gohar Khan talk to the media in Peshawar on Tuesday. — DawnNewsTV
PTI leaders Ali Zafar and Barrister Gohar Khan talk to the media in Peshawar on Tuesday. — DawnNewsTV

The Peshawar High Court (PHC) on Tuesday suspended the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) declaration of the PTI’s intra-party polls as unconstitutional and the revocation of the party’s ‘bat’ election symbol.

Justice Kamran Hayat Miankhel announced the verdict shortly after reserving his order on a PTI petition against the ECP decision.

The court order, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, said that general elections were scheduled for February 8 and the last date for allotment of election symbols was January 13.

It directed that notices be issued to all respondents for Jan 9 and suspended the ECP’s December 22 order. The court also ordered the ECP to publish the PTI’s certificate on the commission’s website and restore the party’s election symbol “keeping in view the urgency, that a political party has been denuded of its symbol, meaning hearby that aspirants from the general public who were willing to vote for the petitioners’ party were divested of their right to vote as per their choice”.

The submission of the party’s plea comes after the electoral watchdog last week voided, for the second time in under a month, the PTI’s internal elections in which Barrister Gohar Ali Khan was elected as the party’s new chairman.

The ECP had issued a verdict following a first-of-its-kind microscopic examination of the inner workings of a political party and declared the party ineligible to obtain an election symbol to contest the upcoming general elections.

“It is held that PTI has not complied with our directions rendered therein order dated 23rd November 2023 and failed to hold intra-party election in accordance with PTI prevailing Constitution, 2019 and Election Act, 2017, and Election Rules, 2017,” the ECP had said in its 11-page order.

The party had termed the decision part of the “famous London Plan” and a “disgusting and shameful attempt to stop PTI from [participating in the] election”.

It had also claimed that the party would still win the general elections, maintaining that it would appeal the decision at every forum. It asserted that its candidates would indeed contest the polls with the ‘bat’ symbol, come what may.

Election symbol is the life of any party: Ali Zafar

Talking to the media after the PHC verdict, PTI counsel Barrister Ali Zafar said the election symbol was the “life” of any party and a basic constitutional right of the organisation and its workers, supporters and voters.

“Today the high court has upheld that basic right and declared that the ‘bat’ symbol belongs to the PTI and restored it.”

Zafar said the ECP had given its verdict in the case as if it was an “opponent” of the PTI instead of a just arbitrator and also questioned why the lawyers from parties or the government were present in today’s hearing. “It seemed that they were against the PTI together with the ECP,” he said.

Zafar said that the ECP should remain “independent and free”.

Meanwhile, Barrister Gohar Ali Khan said the PHC had undermined and eliminated the “conspiracy against the PTI, its symbol and its supporters” with its order. He added that the high court had restored the trust of the party and the nation in the judiciary.

“It seemed as if the ECP were against us, it did not feel as if they were fair,” PTI lawyer Ali Zafar said while speaking to the media outside the PHC alongside Gohar Khan, adding that a symbol is a fundamental right.

“The way lawyers from different parties were arguing in courts today, it seemed as if they were collaborating against PTI. One should not get this perspective, they should stay independent” he said.

Gohar said there was a “great need” for the suspension order since nomination papers for the general elections have been filed and the scrutiny process is under way.

He said the PTI had sent its priority list and all the provinces accepted it other than Punjab, adding that the final list issued included all political parties other than the PTI.

The PTI chairman said the party would request the ECP to ensure elections were free, fair and transparent, adding that the party had always expressed confidence in the watchdog.

“Our trust was hurt, justice wasn’t done with us but we were discriminated against.”

Separately, Gohar said the party would now proceed with its election preparation.

The hearing

At the outset of the hearing, Zafar highlighted that when a party provides its intra-party poll details to the ECP, the commission typically issues a certificate and posts it on its website.

“This certificate then renders the political party eligible to receive its electoral symbol.” However, Zafar argued that, as of now, the certificate has not yet been uploaded to the ECP website.

Zafar argued that the ECP’s directives were illegal, asserting that stripping the PTI of its electoral symbol was also unjust. “With over 0.8 million members, none from within the party raised concerns about the intra-party polls,” he conveyed to the court.

He also questioned the relevance of individuals approaching the ECP. “These are ordinary citizens, not affiliated with the PTI,” the lawyer contended.

He emphasised that judgments in such cases could not be given by civil courts without a proper trial. “The ECP stated that Omer Ayub is not the secretary-general, hence he cannot make any appointments,” Zafar remarked, adding that even if there were errors in appointments, the polls themselves could not be challenged.

The PTI had challenged the ECP order earlier in the day and urged the court to fix the matter for hearing at the earliest.

According to the petition, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the PTI said the ECP order was “without legal authority and jurisdiction”.

The party insisted that the ECP’s proceedings that questioned the PTI’s intra-party polls were “coram non-judice (without jurisdiction) and without lawful authority”.

It urged the court to direct the ECP to publish the results of the PTI’s intra-party polls on its website and restore the party’s symbol.

Speaking to Dawn.com following the submission of the petition, Gohar asked, “What will happen to the 225 reserved seats if a party is stopped from participating in elections under its designated symbol?”

Gohar emphasised the significance of the matter, stating it impacted 250 million people.

According to him, if a party lost its symbol, it would cease to exist.

“We are being denied everything, and a level playing field is far from reality,” he added.

‘Bat’ symbol not allotted to someone else: ECP

Meanwhile, the ECP in a post on social media platform X on Monday said that it did not offer the ‘bat’ electoral symbol to anyone else, including Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Parliamentarians Chairman Pervez Khattak.

Yesterday, Khattak, the leader of his own faction of the PTI, in a talk with the media, stirred controversy by claiming that the bat symbol was “offered” to him. He did not specify by whom.

PTI, ECP both at fault: experts

Meanwhile, experts have criticised both the poll watchdog as well as the former ruling party for what they called their contradictory behaviour.

Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) head Ahmed Bilal Mehboob said PTI should have been more careful about its intra-party polls. “At the same time we have seen the election commission has been soft over many other things,” he added.

He had told Dawn that the PTI had the best-detailed description for holding the intra-party elections and that procedure was followed in 2012. “That excellent democratic process was not witnessed again, possibly the PTI too tried to copy the procedures of other parties,” he opined, adding, “But there is a difference as the constitutions of other parties do not have such detailed description of conducting the intra-party elections.”

Mehboob said PTI’s elections were due in 2021, but because of Covid-19 lockdowns, they were held in June 2022.

“PTI was not careful at that time too and the procedures listed in their constitution were not followed. Later, when the ECP directed it to hold the elections within 20 days the PTI should have been more careful as far as following its own constitution was concerned,” he added.

The Pildat chief also found fault with ECP’s working. He said the watchdog has not been treating all parties even-handedly. “ECP should have taken action when Senator Bugti was inducted into the caretaker cabinet because he was a BAP member of the upper house,” he pointed out. “He was holding such an important portfolio and just as the elections are approaching he has joined another party; this should not be allowed.”

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