Much ado about reserved seats: Can PTI get them with SIC’s help?

To "protect" PTI's reserved seats and "provide cover" to its members, the party has merged with the Sunni Ittehad Council. But what happens next?
Published February 20, 2024

Almost 10 days after the general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) announced on Monday that its independent candidates will join the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) to form governments at the federal level, in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, party leader Barrister Gohar Khan, flanked by other PTI and SIC leaders, said that PTI-backed independent candidates — who have clinched 92 seats in the NA — will join the SIC in a bid to secure reserved seats. The party’s candidates were forced to contest the elections as independents after the Supreme Court upheld the ECP’s decision, deeming its intra-party polls “unconstitutional” and revoked its claim on the iconic electoral symbol.

“You know that there are 70 reserved seats in the National Assembly and there are 227 reserved seats in the entire country. These seats are only provided to political parties.

“Therefore, to protect our reserved seats and provide the cover to our members, we have reached a formal agreement under which all our candidates have joined the party and we will present this documentation before the ECP,” he said.

According to Article 51 of the Constitution, independent candidates have the option to join a political party within three days following the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) notification of their victory on a their respective seats.

Consequently, the party would be allocated reserved seats for women and non-Muslims in the National Assembly based on its augmented numerical representation.

“This is because the quota of reserved seats lies with political parties. Coming together with the Sunni Ittehad Council would increase the PTI’s strength in the National Assembly,” PTI leader Omer Ayub Khan explained.

Later on Monday, the SIC wrote to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to indicate that 50 PTI-backed independents had joined their party.

This, however, leads to a fresh set of complex questions.

Let’s talk about reserved seats

In simple words, each political party submits a list of names for the reserved seats for women and religious minorities and after the election results, the parties are given a certain percentage of seats according to how many general seats the party ends up winning. In short, the more general seats a party wins, the more reserved seats they can lay a claim on.

According to Section 104 of the Election Act 2017, the list of reserved candidates has to be submitted by the contesting political parties before the elections. The issue here is that since SIC has not won even a single seat in the said assemblies, can the names of reserved candidates submitted by them be accepted by the ECP?

Secondly, has the SIC submitted such a list before the elections in the first place? Moreover, can they make additions to the list after the deadline has passed?

When these questions were put before former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad, he told that “it is not a condition that independent candidates can only join a party that has its own national or provincial seat”.

“Independent candidates can join any party that is registered with the ECP and has an electoral symbol,” he added. Hence, PTI-backed candidates can indeed join the SIC and form the government even if the latter hasn’t won a single seat in the legislative assembly.

This much was agreed by Zafarullah Khan, former executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS). “There are examples in the past where a party has won no seat but is joined [by others],” he told, citing the example of Mohsin Dawar, who was elected to the NA and formed the National Democratic Movement (NDM).

But even if PTI-backed candidates can join the SIC, the question of whether PTI can truly claim the reserved seats remains.

Not the first time

There is indeed a precedent of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) getting a reserved seat for women in KP after the first post-merger elections in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), Zafarullah told us. “BAP didn’t contest but independents joined it and got a reserved seat for women.”

According to Dilshad, PTI-backed candidates can face difficulties in claiming reserved seats even after joining the SIC. Section 104 of the Election Act is based on the Constitution’s Article 224 ,which states that any party can give an “additional list” for reserved seats but a party which hasn’t submitted any list can face difficulties in submitting a fresh list.

Section 104 of the Elections Act, 2017 states that “the list submitted by a political party shall not be subject to change or alteration either in the order of priority or through addition of new names in the list or omission of any name after expiry of the date of submission of nomination papers.”

“A candidate to a seat reserved for women or non-Muslims shall file the nomination papers on the Form on or before the last date fixed for filing of nomination papers,” it states before adding that their papers are “scrutinised in the same manner as the nomination papers of candidates on general seats are scrutinised under section 62.”

But the SIC hasn’t submitted any list. Now what?

Lal Malhi, PTI leader and the President of Minority Wing Sindh, confirmed that the SIC has not submitted a list of reserved candidates.

One would think that this settles the issue, preventing any future PTI claim. However, that’s not the case, according to him.

“PTI after allying with SIC will easily claim the reserved seats. The council has not submitted any lists yet and will soon submit them. We understand that Section 104 cannot stop [them] from submitting lists afterwards and there are examples of this in the past.

“In 2018, in Punjab, the list for minorities was not submitted [by the PTI] which was then submitted after the court’s hearing. The court in that judgement said that if any party has a reserved seat quota, it is non-transferable and it can’t be prevented. Therefore, we believe that PTI will be successful in getting reserved seats with the SIC coalition,” Malhi said.

When PTI did not submit a list in Punjab in 2018, PTI-affiliated Mahinder Pall Singh submitted a petition (Case no. 222851/2018) that was accepted by the Lahore High Court. “The party lists for reserved seats shall be accepted and petitioner-candidate shall be accordingly declared and included in the list of eligible candidates” after the passed deadline, the petition stated.

According to the ECP’s Revised Schedule for General Elections 2018, the deadline for the filing of nomination papers with the ROs by the candidates was June 11. Singh was given a ruling on June 29.

In another case, Youdester Chohan vs Provincial Election Commission, the petitioner had argued against the “legality and validity of the orders passed by the Returning Officer, whereby he refused to receive the party lists of their candidates in order of priority for seats reserved for women and non-Muslims on account of one day delay in submission of same from the time stipulated in the election schedule.”

In this case, the court ruled that a “mere delay of one day cannot be considered a sufficient ground to deprive the present petitioners to include their names in the list of eligible candidates”.

This precedent can be invoked by the PTI-backed candidates after joining the SIC to lay claim to the reserved seats. But it all ultimately comes down to the courts to decide whether PTI will be allowed to do so.

Who is the Sunni Ittehad Council?

Amid all this hullabaloo, you may be wondering who the SIC is and how did this little-known entity suddenly burst onto the national scene.

The SIC was established in 2001, with Sahibzada Fazal-e-Kareem nominated as its chairperson and and Haji Hanif Tayyab taking on the role of its secretary general. According to a party official, who asked not to be named, senior leaders of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (a Barelvi outfit) observed at the time that both street power as well as political space had been captured by parties aligned with the Deobandi ideology. Hence, they decided to join hands and form a united front against the its growing influence.

The party was officially registered with the ECP in 2010 and after the death of Fazal Kareem in 2013, Sahibzada Hamid Raza has been managing its affairs.

The SIC contested the 2018 elections from its own platform in 2018, but could not bag anything in any assembly and in 2024, they are contesting the elections as independents, with the backing of the PTI.

It has hence been 24 years since the SIC was first established, however, this is the first time that with the joining of elected independent PTI-backed candidates, the party is poised to have a substantial presence in the provincial and national assemblies.

According to a research paper, titled Sunni Ittehad Council: The Strengths and Limitations of Barelvi Activism against Terrorism, various Barelvi political entities and non-political alliances, with a singular goal of combating religious extremism and terrorism, formed an alliance called the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC).

This coalition comprised significant Barelvi groups and political parties, including the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Pakistan-Markazi (JUP-Markazi) , Jamaat Ahl-e Sunnat (JAS), Almi Tanzeem-i-Ahle Sunnat , Nizam-i-Mustafa Party , Markazi Jamaat Ahl-i-Sunnat, Zia-ul-Ummat Foundation, Halqa-i-Saifiya , Anjuman-i-Tulaba-e-Islam (a Barelvi student organisation), Tanzeemul Madaris (the Barelvi Wafaq that issues degrees to the graduates of madrassahs) led by Mufti Muneebur Rehman, and represented at SIC by Ghulam Mohammad Sialvi (its secretary general and former chairman of Pakistan Baitul Maal) and the Anjuman-i-Asaatza-i-Pakistan led by Peer Athar-ul-Haq, among others.

In its initial days, the SIC marked significant achievements in the fight against religious extremism. On August 14, 2009, the council orchestrated a ‘Peace March’ in Rawalpindi, denouncing religious extremism and terrorism while expressing unwavering support for the Pakistan Army engaged in combating terrorists in Swat. The march drew an impressive attendance of over 10,000 followers — a notable display of opposition to terrorism in Pakistan.

The next year, the SIC organised another long march from Islamabad to Lahore on November 27, 2010, to protest against terrorism. Despite crackdowns by the federal and Punjab governments, the ‘Save Pakistan Long March’ attracted a substantial crowd in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

In January 2012, it was disclosed that the United States provided funding to the SIC to coordinate anti-Taliban rallies in 2009. The ‘Peace March’ in Rawalpindi on August 14 was also alleged to be a component of this purported ‘American agenda.’

According to a Dawn report, US policymakers viewed the Sunni Ittehad as a group of theological moderates who could counter the influence of extremist groups.

In the same year, the council condemned the attack on Malala by Taliban militants in Swat. The former chairperson Sahibzada Fazal-e-Karim, termed the attack ‘un-Islamic’ and declared it a conspiracy against Islam, which, he said, is a religion of peace, tolerance and brotherhood.

On February 5, 2013, 50 Islamic scholars belonging to SIC issued a fatwa (ruling) in which they declared that suicide attacks are forbidden in Islam and that those involved in the killing of innocent people are condemned to hell. They also issued a ruling in favour of polio campaigns and deplored the attacks on anti-polio workers.

However, its later actions on blasphemy-related issues such as calling for protests against the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, demonstrations in the city to resist changes to the blasphemy law and warnings of anarchy in the country if a Christian woman, Asia Bibi — accused of blasphemy, was to be pardoned — placed them squarely among the far-right parties in Pakistan.

Over the years, many political parties have tried to align themselves with the SIC, however none have been successful. In 2012, an election alliance between the Pakistan Muslim League-Q and SIC was announced at a press conference, however, following the announcement, many parties within the council dissociated themselves from SIC.

Dawn reporter Kalbe Ali explained that the political influence of SIC decreased after the formation of Khadim Rizvi’s Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) as many of their supporters left to join the latter.

He said that the only reason the SIC has some political influence is because of its current chairperson, Shazhibzada Hazmid Raza’s close relationship with Allama Nasir Raja Abbas, the Chief of Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) who convinced the PTI to back him as their independent candidate in this year’s elections as an independent candidate where he ended up winning a National Assembly seat in Faisalabad’s NA-104.

Their alliance with PTI has suddenly pushed them to the forefront of the political landscape of Pakistan. Only time will tell how key a player it will be over the next five years.