The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has followed in the footsteps of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in filing a reference before the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) against Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, daughter of the PM Maryam Sharif’s MNA husband Mohammad Safdar, and Shahbaz Sharif’s son MNA Hamza Shahbaz.
The reference seeks their disqualification on the basis of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. However, the ECP has given both the PTI and PPP references short shrift in rejecting them as the ECP cannot entertain them in the light of the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 as well as sections 52-56 of the Representation of People Act 1976.
Article 63(2), the ECP quotes, lays down that disqualification of elected parliamentarians has to follow the procedure of first approaching the Speaker of the National Assembly or Chairman of the Senate, as the case may be, to ascertain within 30 days of any such reference being moved whether prima facie a case exists for referring the matter to the ECP. In the event that the Speaker or Chairman fails to do so within the 30-day stipulated period, it shall be deemed to have been referred to the ECP.
Upon receipt of such a reference, according to Article 63(3), the ECP is obliged to decide the question within 90 days, and if it is of the opinion that the member has become disqualified, he shall cease to be a member and his seat will fall vacant.
Further, according to section 52(2) of the Representation of People Act 1976, a contesting candidate alone can file a disqualification reference and that too within 45 days of the election. Even a contesting candidate’s reference cannot be entertained after the 45-day deadline.
The question then arises, given that there are so many legal luminaries in the ranks of both the PTI and PPP, why have they chosen to ignore these clear provisions of the Constitution and law? The question strengthens the suspicion that this is mere political posturing, point scoring, and an attempt to keep the government under pressure and on the back foot.
Why have these two leading opposition parties, whose weight in the opposition ranks negotiating the Terms of Reference (ToRs) of the proposed commission on the Panama leaks affair is critical, chosen this seemingly fruitless path of first approaching the ECP for disqualification of the PM and some members of his family?
First and foremost, several rounds of meetings between the two sides to come to consensus ToRs proved infructuous. The gulf between the opposition’s insistence that the commission first investigate the PM and his family’s offshore companies, properties and wealth, and the government’s desire to broaden the investigation to include all offshore companies/wealth owners, was the rock on which the negotiations foundered.
Creeping exasperation, first in the PTI, later in the PPP, with what were perceived as the government’s dilatory, time-buying tactics and demands, soon put paid to any chance of consensus ToRs. Now there are reports that since both these major opposition parties have withdrawn from the negotiations, the government may be contemplating framing those ToRs by a majority with the help of some smaller parties.
Whether this is feasible only time will tell, but even if it transpires, it is obvious that without the PTI and PPP on board, any commission formed in this manner will be stillborn, even if it goes through the motions of investigation. The government has assessed the opposition’s tactics after withdrawal from the negotiations as opting for the ‘legal’ route rather than street agitation, which was being touted at one high point of frustration.
Reports say the government is happy at this turn of events, presumably because it fits neatly within its strategy of procrastination and time-buying on the Panama affair. While the ECP-rejected references still have the house chair option, the superior courts too may be approached. Approaching ECP may be opposition’s strategy of keeping the government under pressure, but the unanswered question remains, to what end?
The PTI is no great respecter of our democratic system and may even be prepared to go outside the constitutional framework if advantage beckons, but the PPP has consistently stood for the system, including during Imran Khan’s protracted sit-in. Where all this is headed is still unclear, but the portents of polarisation and confrontation seem worryingly close.