The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a plea of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) seeking a review of the apex court’s order directing elections in Punjab on May 14.
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justices Munib Akhtar and Ijazul Ahsan, announced the verdict. At the outset of proceedings, the ECP’s lawyer sought a week’s time to prepare his arguments in line with the Supreme Court’s detailed verdict on the conduct of elections in Punjab. However, this request was rejected.
The lawyer then argued that under the amended Elections Act, the ECP had the sole mandate to announce a schedule for elections, but the bench also rejected this line of reasoning, with Justice Akhtar remarking that the bench was only hearing the review petition. He then directed the lawyer to highlight any legal errors or inconsistencies in the original judgment that merited a review. The CJP, meanwhile, observed that the ECP not only had the right to announce polls, but it was also its constitutional duty.
Both Justices Ahsan and Akhtar remarked that the Constitution required elections to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of an assembly, and this could not be changed through simple legislation. Justice Ahsan further added: “The ECP cannot delay the elections for more than 90 days.” To this, the ECP lawyer argued there was room for “exceptions,” adding there were some “mistakes” in the apex court’s ruling on the Punjab polls.
Justice Ahsan countered by stating Article 281(3) of the Constitution laid out the ECP’s responsibility to organize and conduct elections, adding this was limited to the constitutionally mandated period of 90 days. “Then how did the ECP grant itself this flexibility to delay elections?” he inquired, with the layer arguing that it was also the ECP’s responsibility to ensure free and fair elections.
Justice Ahsan then asked if the ECP could delay elections for years if conditions did not allow for free and fair elections. The CJP then reiterated that the counsel should point out the flaws in the SC order.
The lawyer then argued that while the constitutional mandate of elections within 90 days could not be violated, it must be read in conjunction with Article 254, which allows for elections to be delayed under certain circumstances. “How can the ECP decide about the specific circumstances on its own?” questioned Justice Ahsan, with the lawyer stating that Article 218(3) could only be used by the ECP and not the court.
The lawyer then argued that the apex court’s order had erred in stating that the ECP cannot delay elections beyond 90 days. To this, Justice Akhtar said it was up to the court to decide if conditions merited any delay to polls. The ECP cannot decide by itself not to hold elections, he added. The CJP, meanwhile, remarked that the court could intervene whenever there was the risk of a constitutional violation. The review appeal was then dismissed.
In April, the Supreme Court had ruled as “unconstitutional” the ECP’s decision to delay elections in Punjab till Oct. 8, setting May 14 as the new date for polls in the province. In doing so, it had dismissed the ECP’s testimony that it could not ensure free and fair elections amidst an ongoing security situation and a lack of funds from the federal government. A month later, the ECP had filed a petition seeking a review of the order, maintaining that changing the election schedule was the sole mandate of the electoral body under Section 58 of the Elections Act, 2017.