Constitutional quick draw – 27 Apr 2023

In the continuing judicial-political standoff, this time parliament decided to use the day before the April 27 hearing into the Punjab elections issue to hold little back and openly call for judicial restraint. Wednesday also saw Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chairing a meeting with the federal cabinet after a huddle with his government’s coalition partners; the huddle was meant to discuss the ongoing tussle between the judiciary and the executive on the date of elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As expected, the government has reiterated its stance that elections across the country should be held on the same day and not separately and that too in October or November. The prime minister also took on the judiciary by saying that the Supreme Court has no power to act as an arbitrator on the issue of elections between the opposition and government. That is not all. The gloves may have been off for a while now – on both sides, to be fair – but it certainly looks like the government and its partners in the coalition are in absolutely no mood to entertain what they say is interference in parliamentary sovereignty. This is a not-at-all-veiled reference to the Supreme Court and its ruling regarding the election issue. Parliament has now openly, loudly and without any ifs or buts come out and said it does not accept the 3:2 verdict but will stand with the 4:3 decision, that it and only it is the forum to disburse funds of elections, and that no institution will be allowed to encroach upon its space. All these sentiments are now being documented in a letter by the speaker of the National Assembly, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and being delivered to the chief justice and other judges of the Supreme Court.

Where does the PTI stand in all this, as the party that got this current ball rolling? For its part, the former ruling party has decided to don a more indignant hat, its leaders saying they look forward to the SC bench’s verdict, and even advising the government to either amend the constitution or hold elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies in line with the Supreme Court’s order. This lofty position may be technically alright if it weren’t for the fact that where both the SC and the government are not ready to budge from their respective positions on the elections, neither is the PTI. For all the talk about talks, we have seen little headway as far as that goes. PM Shehbaz Sharif has said that a parliamentary committee will be discussing the terms of talks between the coalition government and the PTI, and that the door for negotiations should not be closed. However, PTI leaders have said that the government is just not serious about negotiations. It is interesting to see where the twists and turns of politics have brought the PTI, which was the real roadblock in holding negotiations with the government.

We are as yet unclear what transpires during and after today’s SC hearing. Will the speaker’s letter hold any weight? Can it? Will the CJ and his court end up looking at contempt as a possible punishment? Where would that lead the government, and the court? And can a contempt proceeding even be practical given the September retirement deadline for the CJ? Is the PTI serious about talks? If so, does that lend credence to the government’s analysis that: a) it cannot trust a U-turn happy Imran; and b) Imran may not be as big or scary a rival as was thought? The country badly needs a consensus in a showdown that has too many self-styled sheriffs.

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