Level playing field: Courts standing behind every political party for elections, says CJP Isa

Published January 3, 2024
Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar and Justice Musarrat Hilali hear PTI’s contempt plea against the ECP on Jan 2.— DawnNewsTV
Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar and Justice Musarrat Hilali hear PTI’s contempt plea against the ECP on Jan 2.— DawnNewsTV

Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa on Wednesday said the courts were “standing behind every political party for elections” as the Supreme Court heard the PTI’s contempt plea against the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

A three-member bench, headed by CJP Isa and comprising Justice Muhammad Ali Mazhar and Justice Musarrat Hilali, presided over the hearing. The proceedings were broadcast live on the apex court’s website.

The PTI’s contempt plea alleged that the electoral body violated SC directives for a level playing field in the upcoming polls.

On Dec 22, the apex court had directed the ECP to attend to the PTI’s grievances urgently and resolve these expeditiously to ensure that the electoral process remains smooth, open, transparent, free and fair.

Let this exercise be completed by ECP promptly without disturbing the timelines given in the election programme because “voters must have faith in the electoral process for our democracy to succeed”, the order — issued on a PTI petition seeking a level playing field — had stated.

However, in a fresh application filed last week, PTI Chairman Barrister Gohar Khan sought the initiation of contempt proceedings against the electoral watchdog for non-compliance with the SC’s Dec 22 orders.

The ECP and the PTI have been in “bat blood” over the past few months after the commission stripped the party of its symbol. While the decision was later suspended by the Peshawar High Court, the PTI alleged conspiracies were being hatched to snatch its iconic electoral symbol and exclude it from the Feb 8 general elections.

Moreover, the top leadership of the party and its allies have been knocked out of the polls race, as almost “90 per cent of nominations from important leaders” failed to stand the scrutiny exercise. They have now decided to challenge the rejections.

On Monday, Shaheen had appeared before the SC to request early fixing of the level playing field case but was told to wait till the tea break. He was later told that the hearing had been fixed.

Ahead of the hearing today, the PTI submitted a Civil Miscellaneous Application, outlining the rejection of its leaders’ nomination papers, PTI leader Shoaib Shaheen told Dawn.com.

During the proceeding, the SC directed Punjab Inspector General Dr Usman Anwar, the provincial advocate general and chief secretary to submit a report on whether the apex court’s Dec 22 directives had been complied with. The case was later adjourned till Jan 8.

The hearing

At the outset of the hearing, PTI counsel Latif Khosa and Shoaib Shaheen came to the rostrum.

Referring to the Sardar prefix in the lawyer’s name, CJP Isa said that the Sardar system was not present anymore and would not be stated in the court.

Justice Mazhar asked whether the PTI had approached the ECP on the SC’s verdict and that the “main case” had been dealt with on Dec 22 as the contempt plea was not a new case. He further asked whether the electoral body or its provincial branches had made a decision or issued any new directives.

Khosa replied that the ECP had not given the PTI any directives. Here, the chief justice ordered Khosa to explain his legal and constitutional points rather than “starting a political lecture like everyone else”.

The CJP asked how the inspector generals and the chief secretaries were related to the ECP and ordered the PTI counsel to provide evidence.

Khosa responded that he had provided the details in his application, to which Justice Isa said the party could make only the ECP a respondent in the contempt plea and that a separate plea needed to be filed for action against individuals.

The CJP noted that if nomination papers had been rejected, an appeal could be filed against the rejection.

Khosa informed the SC that 668 nomination papers of the PTI had been dismissed, to which Justice Mazhar wondered how the court could understand the matter without being provided with the figures for the forms accepted.

Justice Mazhar also noted that the plea stated that data had been gathered via social media platforms and the names of a few had not been stated. Khosa clarified that all the complaints were from the PTI.

CJP Isa reiterated the option to appeal the rejection, to which the lawyer replied that copies of the rejection were not being given and the path to appeal was “blocked”.

At this, the chief justice remarked: “You think the high court is so helpless it can not call the [returning officer (RO) and ask] ‘why have you rejected the nomination papers’?”

“We are trying to push through democracy but every day, we come across people not wanting to go into elections,” the CJP said, as he expressed his displeasure at Khosa for making the IGs respondents in his plea.

“The courts are standing behind every political party for elections. We have repeatedly said so,” the top judge observed.

Justice Isa then directed Khosa to approach the election tribunal and then contact SC if the matter was still unresolved.

At one point during the hearing, the CJP wondered how the court could accept the PTI’s contempt plea without listening to the other respondents and how it could direct for “accepting a party’s [nomination] papers and rejecting those of others”.

The court subsequently summoned the ECP officials to the rostrum. The CJP inquired about the deadline for filing an appeal against the rejection of nomination papers, to which the ECP’s director-general of law replied that today is the last day.

For his part, Khosa argued that he had made the IGs respondents as the ECP had issued directives to them on the party’s complaint. When asked about the copy of the complaint, the counsel replied he had not attached it with the contempt plea.

Khosa asked whether the ECP had fulfilled its responsibilities by only giving directives to the provincial authorities, at which Justice Isa told him to stay within the scope of the contempt plea.

The top judge noted that the election commission had on Dec 26 submitted a report on the implementation of the SC’s directives.

Here, Khosa urged the apex court to adjourn the hearing till tomorrow, at which CJP Isa directed the PTI counsel to submit a response to the ECP’s report first and provide details of what happened after Dec 26.

Upon Khosa saying that “everything has appeared on the media”, the chief justice said he does not watch the media.

“Not just cosmetic implementation; you are the protector of basic rights [so] you should ensure transparent elections,” Khosa said to the CJP Isa.

The chief justice stated that the PTI had not “made a particular allegation” in its contempt plea, adding that the party had also made similar accusations during the 2013 general elections but nothing had come out of it.

Khosa argued that the situation back then had no comparison to the current circumstances. The top judge remarked that incumbent Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja had been appointed by the PTI.

“There cannot be a stronger order than our Dec 22 one. If you have made any complaint to the election commission after that, then you may tell us,” the CJP added.

Meanwhile, Justice Mazhar asked the ECP officials whether the body was providing the PTI with a level playing field, to which the ECP’s law DG replied that “every complaint” of the PTI had been forwarded to the relevant authorities and was decided according to law.

However, Khosa contended that a “blind eye cannot be turned to people picked up from outside RO offices”, adding that his own son was arrested.

The chief justice inquired whether the Punjab advocate general was present in the courtroom, to which the additional advocate general said he was not.

The SC then directed Punjab Inspector General Dr Usman Anwar and the provincial advocate general and chief secretary to submit a report on whether its Dec 22 directives have been complied with.

The petition

The contempt of court petition named Interior Secretary Aftab Akbar Durrani, ECP Secretary Omar Hamid Khan, chief secretaries of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan, as well as IG Punjab Dr Usman Anwar, IG Balochistan Abdul Khalique Sheikh, IG KP Akhtar Hayat, and IG Sindh Riffat Mukhtar as respondents.

The plea, moved on behalf of Barrister Gohar Ali Khan through Shaheen, sought a direction from the Supreme Court to ensure a level playing field by not arresting PTI candidates, workers, and leaders. Instead, they should be allowed to participate in the election process, and their proposers and seconders should not be harassed.

Besides, it urged the SC to issue appropriate orders to ensure that the appointed ROs and district returning officers (DROs) carry out their assigned duties in a neutral manner, in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without subjecting PTI and its candidates to any unlawful or discriminatory treatment.

The court should also issue directions to the respondents to ensure that PTI and its candidates were granted necessary permissions to conduct rallies and gatherings to campaign for the general election and that no impediments or hurdles be created in PTI’s election campaign.

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