The Supreme Court of Pakistan declared the Election Commission of Pakistan’s decision to postpone the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elections null and void on Tuesday, likely adding another chapter to the country’s ongoing political crisis. A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial ruled that elections in Punjab would take place on May 14. Not only that, but the court has also provided a step-by-step guide on how to hold the elections and has ordered the federal government to provide the ECP with funds worth Rs 21 billion in any case by April 10 for the general elections in Punjab and KP.
Now that the matter has been resolved—and it is a near-unanimous verdict for legal observers that the verdict upholds constitutional principles in terms of the provision for election—we may be faced with even more serious issues, such as: what happens next? The signs have not been favourable, and on Tuesday the PMLN-led administration once more delivered the well-known rejected verdict.
The cabinet rejected the verdict hours after the Supreme Court delivered it, with the prime minister even invoking the April 4 date and saying that, just as the decision had also slain justice on April 4, the day Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed by hanging. This stands in stark contrast to the PTI, which has unmistakably interpreted the ruling as supporting its position. In the meantime, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has chosen to start yet another pointless controversy by requesting that a reference be made against the Supreme Judicial Council’s three justices for what he claims is a charge-sheet against themselves.
While the majority of legal experts think that the election issue has always been moot because elections must be performed in accordance with the constitution within 90 days, some argue that there is little that can be done to prevent the government from withholding cash. That might not be that simple, though, since the PTI has mentioned contempt charges being brought against Prime Minister Shehbaz if he disobeys court orders. The administration can argue that since there might be a debate in parliament about releasing these funds, the PM won’t be held in contempt.
Apart from that, the main issue for us here, and something that all stakeholders should take seriously, is that we now have a painfully visible split in the higher judiciary. The question for Pakistan is not simply whether there will be a “clash” between the judiciary and the legislature or even within the judiciary itself, but also whether the judges will be able to uphold the position of respect and honour that is essential to their function in the state. Many legal experts have advocated for a full-bench hearing, claiming that when the impartiality of the court is called into question, it is puzzling why a full court was not convened.
In terms of elections in Punjab, the caretaker government has stated that it will follow the court’s orders, but political observers believe that if the government delays in releasing funds, they will not be in the hands of the ECP or the caretakers. What the Supreme Court does in this case will result in another executive versus judiciary showdown. Such talk should not be taken lightly at a time when political players say this road may end up spelling doom, for this is especially true if the country’s interior minister is considering declaring an emergency.
We have many reasons to be concerned. It would be preferable if all political parties sat down together and resolved this issue, rather than dragging it out to the point where democracy is over. Could one also hope that the superior judiciary recognises that things are rapidly deteriorating and that, at the end of the day, justice is only as important as the means by which it is obtained? Justice and controversy were never natural allies.