ISLAMABAD, June 24: The government on Tuesday offered its main ally Nawaz Sharif only legal help against an election bar ordered by a controversial court as the ruling coalition came under renewed pressure to make up for broken promises for the reinstatement of deposed judges.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Law Minister Farooq H. Naek both told the National Assembly the government would appeal before the Supreme Court to challenge Monday’s ruling by a three-judge bench of the Lahore High Court that disqualified the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) leader and two-time former prime minister from contesting for a lower house seat in by-elections on Thursday because of a previous conviction.

Mr Gilani, speaking in the absence of PML-N lawmakers who had walked out in protest after fiery speeches by some of them, said his government would also seek a postponement of the polling in the NA-123 constituency in Lahore for which Mr Sharif was standing till the decision.

Mr Naek earlier said the appeal before the Supreme Court would seek a stay of the order issued by the Lahore High Court judges before whom Mr Sharif had refused to appear or send a lawyer to argue for him because he did not recognise their legitimacy for having taken oath under a Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) issued by President Pervez Musharraf on Nov 3, 2007 as part of his extra-constitutional emergency under which about 60 judges of the Supreme Court and the four provincial high courts were sacked for refusing or not being called upon to take a new oath.

The speech by the prime minister, who came at the fag-end of the day’s proceedings before the house was prorogued after a 23-day budget session, seemed falling far short of PML-N members’ demands from the coalition leading Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), such as taking a clear stand on the legitimacy of the so-called “PCO judges” handpicked by President Musharraf and

implementation of the “Murree Declaration” signed by the two parties last March that had called for the restoration of the pre-Nov 3 judiciary through a National Assembly resolution within 30 days of the formation of their government.

But, speaking in Urdu, he said he shared the sentiments of PML-N leaders over the ruling that “dismayed the whole nation”, and added: “We wish institutions get strengthened and take decisions which are acceptable to people so their credibility is not compromised.”

The prime minister said he consulted PML-N leaders Nisar Ali Khan, Javed Hashmi and Ahsan Iqbal, all of whom earlier spoke in the house, as well as the law minister and Interior Adviser Rehman Malik about the government’s options and came to the conclusion in favour of filing an appeal before the Supreme Court.

“We will also make a request (to the Election Commission) to postpone the election for NA-123 till the decision of the case.”

Some of the PML-N members, taking the floor after the issue was first raised by PPP veteran Zafar Ali Shah, cast doubts about the PPP leadership’s sincerity about the judges’ issue and about the usefulness of a proposed constitution amendment package through which it now says the deposed judges be restored rather than a National Assembly resolution as promised in the “Murree Declaration”.

Two deadlines set for restoring the judges under the “Murree Declaration” — April 30 and May 12 — were missed because of a perceived dithering by PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, and there was no official word yet when the package would come to parliament to be passed by the required two-thirds majorities in both houses of parliament, which the coalition has in the 342-seat National Assembly but lacks in the 100-seat Senate.

Mr Naek said the government had opposed the petition against Mr Sharif’s candidacy in the Lahore High Court through a deputy attorney-general and would make every effort to have that order vacated by the Supreme Court. “Now I hope a correct decision will come.”

He said it was unfair to accuse the PPP of trying to protect the PCO judges and, while reiterating the government’s oft-repeated commitment to restore the deposed judges, added: “If somebody thinks it should be done instantly with a ‘danda’ (stick), that we don’t want.”

In an apparent reference to President Musharraf, PML-N parliamentary leader Nisar Ali Khan blamed “strings pulled from the background” for Mr Sharif’s disqualification and urged all members of the house and coalition partners to make their position clear whether they stood by forces of democracy or of dictatorship and about the position of PCO judges.

He said his party had a still undisclosed tape-recording of a “big personality giving directions to PCO judges”, similar to the one the party had previously claimed was a recording of former Punjab chief minister and present opposition leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, telling somebody about arrangements to get Sharif brothers disqualified.

PML-Q chief whip Riaz Hussain Pirzada, who said he was speaking only for himself on a private members’ day, said he would “side with democratic forces when the time comes” even if he had to lose his seat in the house.

PPP’s Zafar Ali Shah called the Lahore ruling a “mini 58(2)(b)” — a reference to the constitution’s article of the same number empowering the president to dissolve the National Assembly and sack a prime minister — which he said had now been used in the by-elections and “could be used later against us”.

Ahsan Iqbal said the PCO judges were “Musharraf’s judges” who were not doing justice and that “if they were not stopped their arm could reach parliament”.

Mr Ayaz Amir described the PPP’s constitution package as “worse than the 17th constitution amendment” of 2003 that legitimised General Musharraf’s decrees until then, and said “over-cleverness” being shown in pursuing the new move “will damage us all”.

PPP chief whip Khurshid Ahmed Shah failed to persuade the PML-N to end its walkout and later assured the house that his party would “never leave its allies alone”, though he said the allies must act with caution in the face of attempts to divide them.

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