ISLAMABAD: Now that the judges have spoken — and in detail —the fate of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani lies in the hands of one woman — Dr Fehmida Mirza, the Speaker of the National Assembly.
The government is clearly counting on this.
Talking to reporters during a reception at the presidency, Law Minister Farooq Naek said that Dr Mirza could decide the future of Mr Gilani who had been convicted by the Supreme Court in the contempt case.
Those familiar with the procedure told Dawn that the issue would reach Dr Mirza only after someone — a parliamentarian or an outsider — filed a reference, asking whether or not Prime Minister Gilani could remain a member of the National Assembly.
“After receiving such a reference, there is a deadline of 30 days,” said a National Assembly staff member.
The speaker can then make one of three choices.
Option number one is to keep silent and let the reference pass on to the Election Commission of Pakistan for its ruling as described in Article 63(2) of the Constitution: “If any question arises whether a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament) has become disqualified from being a member, the speaker or, as the case may be, the chairman shall, unless he decides that no such question has arisen, refer the question to the Election Commission within 30 days and should he fail to do so within the aforesaid period it shall be deemed to have been referred to the Election Commission.”
In option number two, the speaker can herself send the case to the Election Commission, which then has to take a decision in 90 days. Article 63(3) says: “The Election Commission shall decide the question within 90 days from its receipt or deemed to have been received….”
The third option, which Mr Naek was referring to, allows the speaker to reject the reference arguing that in her opinion the prime minister does not merit disqualification.
On the other hand, she can also disqualify him if she so believes. In both cases, her ruling would be taken as final.
Legal experts say that Article 63(2) gives this power to the speaker.
“If the speaker declares that the prime minister is qualified to hold his office, his conviction will be automatically suspended,” an expert said.
In such an event, the Constitution is silent on whether or not her ruling could be challenged in a court.
When this question was put to Supreme Court Lawyer Salman Akram Raja, he said that in case the speaker decided in favour of Mr Gilani, her decision could be challenged in the apex court since there was no specific constitutional provision to deal with such an eventuality.
In reply to another question, Mr Raja said, in case the government filed an appeal against the judgment, the speaker’s office could hold the reference till the disposal of the appeal.
The government also agrees with this assessment.
National Assembly’s Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi told journalists at the presidency that the speaker was bound to decide the matter within 30 days but that this period would start once the apex court had given its verdict on the appeal.
“It is a misperception that the 30-day period started on April 26 when the short order of the Supreme Court was released,” he said.
Away from the reception at the presidency, the media section of the National Assembly confirmed that it had received the detailed judgment on the conviction of the prime minister. However, one of its staff members clarified that the judgment had been passed on for the sake of information, as it didn’t directly order the speaker’s office for implementation.
The legal process and the powers vested with the speaker, the Election Commission and others have come under the spotlight once again since the Supreme Court released its judgment in the contempt case on Tuesday.
Predictably, the judgment simply provided anti-government lawyers and observers another chance to argue that after a unanimous seven-judge bench decision, the convicted prime minister could no longer run the government.
On the other hand, pro-government members of the legal fraternity are equally adamant that the court no longer has a say in the matter and that the speaker is in charge now. But it is important to point out that the debate over the speaker’s ruling is yet to begin in earnest.
First the focus will shift back to the court as the prime minister’s defence counsel, Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, will file an appeal, allowing the issue to linger on, which suits the PPP government.