Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ruled that elections for the provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa must be held within 90 days.
The five-member top court bench, led by Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, on Wednesday gave a split 3-2 decision.
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“Parliamentary democracy is one of the salient features of the constitution. There can be no parliamentary democracy without parliament or the provincial assemblies … Elections, and the periodic holding of elections, therefore, underpin the very fabric of the constitution,” the court said in its order.
The assemblies in the two provinces were controlled by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. In January, Khan, in a bid to force early elections, asked the provincial governors to dissolve the two assemblies.
Pakistan traditionally holds the provincial and national elections together. The general polls are due by October this year.
According to Pakistan’s constitution, elections must be held within 90 days after the dissolution of a provincial assembly.
On February 21, President Arif Alvi, who is from the PTI, unilaterally announced April 9 as the election date in the two provinces, creating a constitutional crisis, with experts wondering if he had the right to do so.
The top court took a suo moto notice of the president’s announcement to determine which government institution had the constitutional responsibility of deciding the poll dates.
The court said that since the governor of Punjab, Muhammad Baligh Ur Rehman, did not sign the order declaring the dissolution of the assembly, the president had the constitutional responsibility to announce the election date in the province.
It further noted that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Haji Ghulam Ali, despite signing the dissolution order on January 18, failed to declare a poll date, which the top court said was a “breach of his constitutional responsibility”.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is yet to respond to the court’s ruling.
PTI welcomes ruling
PTI chairman Khan welcomed the top court’s ruling. He also announced that his party was suspending a “fill the jails” protest movement to demand immediate polls and will begin campaign preparations in the two provinces.
“It was responsibility of Supreme Court to uphold constitution and they have valiantly done that through their judgement today. It is an assertion of rule of law in Pakistan,” he wrote on Twitter.
Legal expert Reza Ali said Pakistan’s constitution is clear about holding elections within 90 days. “It is rather absurd that this case even went to the Supreme Court,” the Lahore-based lawyer told Al Jazeera.
However, Ali said the court’s ruling is ambiguous on when the elections should take place.
“The verdict says that if it is not possible to meet the 90-day deadline stipulated by the constitution, the ECP can deviate from it … This is left totally to the subjective whims of the electoral watchdog, who can say that the minimum deviation is three months or six months. So perhaps, one should not expect elections in 90 days,” he said.
Lawyer Abuzar Salman Niazi said the Punjab governor created an “unnecessary controversy” by delaying the announcement of an election date.
“We have in the past seen many examples where Supreme Court bypassed constitution and law by using the doctrine of necessity. However, this time it has held that the constitution will prevail, even though many stakeholders wanted elections to be delayed,” Niazi told Al Jazeera.
Aasiya Riaz of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a Lahore-based think-tank, said the top court’s order has further complicated the issue of holding staggered elections.
“The issue had to be resolved through interpretation by the court but the split order has refrained from addressing the thorny constitutional issue. Now that an election schedule must be announced by the ECP, it will add to political and constitutional turmoil instead of a resolution,” she told Al Jazeera.