The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is ready to conduct fresh intra-party polls before the upcoming Feb. 8 general elections—which its candidates are contesting as independents—in its latest bid to avoid defections from the party after a new Parliament forms.
Speaking with the Standard, PTI Parliamentary Leader in the Senate Senator Ali Zafar confirmed the party is deliberating on conducting fresh intra-party polls to ensure the party retains its standing in Parliament after the elections. Such polls, he stressed, would be strictly in accordance with the party constitution to remove all objections raised by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) over its previous polls, which had resulted in the withdrawal of its electoral symbol.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court upheld the ECP’s decision to withdraw the PTI’s electoral symbol of a “cricket bat” after ruling its intra-party polls were not in accordance with its constitution. The apex court ruling followed the ECP appealing against a Peshawar High Court (PHC) order restoring the symbol after declaring the electoral body’s decision “illegal, without any lawful authority and of no legal effect.”
The SC verdict has triggered controversy, with supporters maintaining it followed the letter of the law, and dissenters claiming it violated the fundamental right of voters, because electoral symbols carry heavy weightage in a country like Pakistan with a large illiterate population.
Zafar, who argued on behalf of the PTI before the SC, reiterated that the ruling had dented the credibility of the upcoming polls. Maintaining polls conducted without the participation of Pakistan’s “most popular party” lacked legitimacy, he claimed it had paved the way for “sham democracy.”
Explaining the ECP’s view on the post-election scenario, former ECP secretary and incumbent adviser to the interim Punjab C.M. on law and parliamentary affairs Kanwar Dilshad told the Standard that even though candidates affiliated with the PTI were contesting as independent candidates, the party remained in the field.
“Some legal experts are of the view that independent candidates can rejoin the PTI after elections while our [ECP] point of view is that candidates who do not contest on party election symbol cannot rejoin it,” he said, acknowledging that as the PTI remained a registered party, Article 224’s silence on the matter left a degree of ambiguity.
“Therefore, the ball is again in the ECP’s court and the Commission will decide upon this keeping in view all legal and constitutional options and lacunas after the elections,” he said. “Simply put, it’s the prerogative of the ECP to decide whether it allow the candidates to sail into the PTI or not,” he added.
Under articles 106 and 52, any elected independent candidates have three days to either join a like-minded political party or form an independent group. Parties that attract independent candidates get a larger share of 70 reserved seats for women and minorities in the National Assembly, considered key to forming government. Similarly, provincial assemblies also have reserved seats that can significantly boost a party’s standing beyond its wins on direct seats.
According to independent constitutional expert Faisal Siddiqui, the key concern for the PTI is that candidates elected with its support—as independents—are not bound to rejoin it after winning the polls, with the law allowing them to align with any other party. Maintaining that legally any victorious independent candidates could rejoin the PTI and enter assemblies as PTI members, he noted that without an elected chairman in the absence of valid intra-party polls, the party would be unable to enforce the defection clause.
“Nor is Imran Khan the chairman, neither is Barrister Gohar Khan, and similarly the party has no president, no vice president and no office bearers on provincial level. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that the PTI is a party sans leadership,” he said. As such, he explained, there is no one present to nominate the PTI’s parliamentary head in the assemblies.
“Tomorrow, for example, if there is a vote of no-confidence on a constitutional amendment in the National Assembly or if they want to enforce defection clause under Article 63A, what would they do because the defection clause requires action by two entities—the party head and parliamentary head,” he said, questioning who would enforce the defection.
Dilshad admitted the prevailing scenario was ripe for horse-trading, as candidates elected with PTI support could easily opt to defect without facing any legal consequences. Leaders of the PTI’s rival parties have already hinted at this.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told an interviewer last week his party was in touch with “many” independent candidates and was hoping to form the next government at the center with their support. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has similarly claimed several independent candidates have approached it for a post-election alliance. Istehkam-e-Party Pakistan (IPP) Chairman Jahangir Tareen, meanwhile, is known for his “skill” in securing independents for the PTI after the 2018 general elections and could opt for a similar strategy after the upcoming polls.
Siddiqui maintained that the PTI’s loss of its electoral symbol would make it easy to bribe or intimidate independent candidates affiliated with it to join rival parties. This, he explained, would follow the party already facing an uphill task in communicating separate election symbols for all its candidates in every constituency, and being deprived of 235 reserved seats in the provincial and national assemblies.
The large presence of independents in the upcoming polls—and the various parties wooing them—also raises the specter of a hung parliament, which could prove devastating for political stability. Dilshad noted a minimum of 166 votes were required to elect the prime minister, speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly.
“If the independent candidates do not lend their support to any party, then the president reserves the right to dissolve assembly under Article 58(2),” he explained, maintaining he expected the upcoming polls to be the most decisive in Pakistan’s history, as voters are well aware of the prevailing economic and political concerns.