Punjab on the brink of another constitutional crisis

Punjab Assembly Speaker Sibtain Khan on Tuesday termed “illegal, against the provisions of the Constitution and thus stand disposed of” the Punjab governor’s orders directing Chief Minister Parvez Elahi to seek a vote of confidence in a special assembly session to show he still commands a majority.

In his two-page ruling, the speaker maintained that the governor’s orders were not in accordance with Article 54(3) and Article 127. “The house is in session since Oct 23, 2022, and under Article 54(3) and 127. No fresh session can be convened unless and until the current one ends,” the order read.

Referring to the Mian Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo vs Federation of Pakistan case, Mr Khan said that the CM has to be given 10 clear days to win the vote of confidence. He added this “time span was mandatory”, which is missing in the governor’s order.

Subsequently, the PA speaker summoned the house on Friday afternoon, virtually killing the proceedings of the vote of confidence and the governor’s orders.

‘Constitutional battle’

With both sides sticking to their respective positions at the time of going to print, an acrimonious constitutional battle is undoubtedly going to ensue, adding further fuel to the already volatile political situation.

Legal experts, however, believe if the chief minister fails to win vote of confidence in the timeframe set by Governor Balighur Rehman, i.e. 4pm today (Wednesday), the office of Chief Minister would fall vacant — plunging the province into a deep constitutional crisis.

They said this would also expose the practitioner to legal consequences over the purported obstruction. “Those facilitating such constitutional misadventure can be proceeded against as such,” cautioned Advocate Usama Khawar. It would exactly be the same position when during the no-confidence motion against then-prime minister Imran Khan in April [this year], the court later held few individuals guilty of violating the Constitution. “They were not proceeded against, but it cannot be held as precedent or guarantee that it would not happen next time,” he warned.

“Otherwise a figurehead of the province, especially after the 18th Amendment, Article 130 and its sub-clause 7 give discretionary powers to the governor – and do so for a reason. Like the president at the centre, it is the governor who initiates and sets the course of vote of confidence in the province. The chief minister holds office at his pleasure. This is constitution, not interpretation of it,” Mr Usama maintained.

Advocate Supreme Court Malik Awais Khalid agreed. “Article 130 and its sub-clause 7 that deal with the subject clearly state that the governor in his own satisfaction (read discretion) decides when, in his opinion, the chief minister requires a fresh mandate from the house.”

“This is an independent provision, which does not require contingent conditions…The only requirement is that he would fix the time for the chief minister to go through the process and that procedure is also final. If it is not completed within the fixed timeframe, the chief minister is considered to have lost the confidence of the house and his seat,” Mr Malik asserted.

Meanwhile, the experts were also clear about the consequences. “If the vote of confidence process is not completed by today afternoon, the incumbent chief minister would not only lose his office, but he cannot continue even as caretaker — a normal practice of keeping the seat warm till the next one is appointed,” they added.

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