Sharif’s dual disqualification
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has barred former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from leading the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) after his disqualification as the prime minister on July 28, 2017. The verdict was expected after he had bulldozed the parliament and the spirit of democracy to amend a law to allow himself to head his party even after disentitlement, but it has not only created troubles for his party but for the continuity of democracy in Pakistan.
The landmark judgment, which will pave the way for true democracy in the country, has declared all his acts, verbal or written, illegal since his disqualification as prime minister almost six months ago. In the period, he has taken a number of important decisions as the PML-N president, including the appointment of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, formation of the Central Executive Committee of the party and award of tickets to candidates for by-elections and the Senate. The first problem arose for PML-N candidates for the Senate, whose nomination papers had been approved by him. The party submitted a fresh list of candidates to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), but it ejected the names on the grounds that the time for filing papers had expired. However, it announced that the party candidates could contest the election as independent candidates. The decision was taken by the ECP after a special session called by the Chief Election Commissioner. It can still be challenged in the courts and the candidates, approved by Nawaz Sharif, could be disqualified. In this way, the ruling party could be deprived of its due share in the Senate, because of sheer obduracy of the former prime minister, who preferred his personal wellbeing to the party’s interests. If the PML-N candidates are disqualified, hopefuls of other parties could be declared winners.
In its historic order, a three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and comprising Justice Umar Ata Bandial and Justice Ijazul Ahsan, declared that any person, who is disqualified under the Article 62 or 63 of the Constitution, cannot hold the position of “party head” by whatever name called. The disqualified person, the order said, is also prohibited from exercising any of the powers provided in the Article 63-A of the Constitution as “party head” or any other power in that capacity under any law, rule, regulation, statute, instrument or document of any political party. Such bar and prohibition shall commence from the date of disqualification and continue till such time that the lack of qualification/disqualification of such person continues in terms of the provisions of the Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. As a result, all steps taken, orders passed, directions given and documents issued by Nawaz Sharif as party head after his disqualification on July 28, 2017, are also declared to have never been taken, passed, given or issued in the eyes of the law, the court observed.
The court said that the Election Act-2017 empowers a party head to perform multifarious functions that have a direct nexus with the process of elections to the parliament and to matters relating to the affairs of political parties having a parliamentary presence. Justice Ahsan said a party head had a direct connection with members of the parliament and if a disqualified person heads a party then the disqualified person can also control the lawmakers. “If the party head is polluted, then the whole scheme is polluted,” he observed. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and other parties and individuals had approached the Supreme Court for disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as party chief after his disqualification in the Panamagate verdict.
Observations of the judges during the hearing of the case had made it clear that an adverse judgment was coming for the former prime minister. At one point, the court wondered if a thief or looter could become a political party head. It was a general observation but the Sharif family took offence to it and criticized the court for using the words like “robber and thief” for Nawaz Sharif. The court also sought details from the lawyer of the ruling party if there was a precedent in any country of the world that allowed a convicted person to take part in politics and head a political party. It also questioned whether a convicted person could run a party from jail?
The controversial amendment, which allowed Nawaz Sharif to become his party’s head, was against the spirit of democracy from the outset. Merit and the rule of law, the two pillars of democracy, had been bulldozed in the process, which meant a killer, dishonest person, liar and even a traitor could lead a political party in Pakistan, even after he was convicted by the courts. It also allowed a convict to appoint the prime minister of the country, even though he himself could not become a councillor. The amendment aimed to defy the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which had ruled that the former prime minister could not hold a public office for his lifetime, for corruption and concealing assets in the Panama case. Another dark aspect of the amendment was the role of the parliament. The ruling party, which enjoys an absolute majority in the National Assembly, had passed the bill to benefit only one person.
The court ruling will improve democracy in the country. It will also open a floodgate of petitions in courts against the ruling party. All decisions taken by Nawaz Sharif as the PML-N president will be challenged. The appointment of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, formation of the Central Executive Committee of the party and award of tickets to candidates for by-elections will also be challenged. The results of all by-polls can be declared null and void. Even his party can lose its name. If he cannot lead a party, how can he form an eponymous party? The court will have some interesting issues to decide in the coming weeks and months.