Suspension over invalid by-polls

supreme court of pakistanThe Supreme Court has suspended the membership of nine MNAs and 11 MPAs, mostly belonging to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

The lawmakers were elected in post-18th Amendment by-polls held by an incomplete Election Commission in violation of Article 218 that makes it mandatory for the commission to be composed of a chairperson and one member each from the four provinces in order to validly conduct elections. The Election Commission of Pakistan did not meet this constitutional provision, held more than two dozen by-polls across the country, and created a fundamental flaw while complying with its constitutional responsibility to conduct by-polls on vacant seats within the given constitutional time limit. Despite the repeated promises of the government to rectify this anomaly by bringing in a constitutional amendment — the 20th Amendment Bill — it has so far failed to build a consensus with the opposition on the issue.

Although the environment between the executive and the judiciary has remained cloudy most of the time, the Supreme Court’s latest move comes after the court had been constantly questioning the validity of the by-polls held in the absence of a properly constituted election commission. In the said situation, the Supreme Court even had the prerogative to disqualify the 28 lawmakers, yet it showed restraint in its decision, giving the government another chance to make the necessary amendment in the constitution seeking to legitimise the by-polls in question.

The axe of the Supreme Court’s order has also fallen on two main federal cabinet ministers, the Minister for Finance and Minister for Petroleum. Although the government has ‘salvaged’ them as advisors, their and the other 26 suspended MPs’ fate now rests on the government’s negotiations with the opposition in order to get the 20th Amendment passed, preferably unanimously.

The issue has started a game of political bargaining between the treasury and opposition as the amendment is important for the government not only to resolve the conundrum of the 28 suspended parliamentarians, but also to send a strong message of parliament standing together on the issue. The PML-N-led opposition however, seems adamant to extract its demands before facilitating the successful passage of the bill.

These demands include guarantees about the composition of the caretaker setup that must oversee the looming general elections, appointment of an impartial election commissioner and extension in the tenure of the election commission’s four members to five years from two years. The demands of the opposition are valid in principle and the government should not hesitate in agreeing to them.

The delay in building a much-needed consensus over the 20th Amendment has taken the matter to this pass where 28 MPs have been suspended. Now if the government concedes, it would be in the best interests of the country. The independence of the election commission is undoubtedly the first step needed for ensuring a fair and impartial election, thereby building an even stronger democratic set-up in the country in the years to come. The government should remove all the hurdles in the way and validate the by-polls by passing the 20th Amendment and bring matters back on an even keel.  – Dailytimes