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Pakistan in Crisis After Standoff Over Poll Date

FILE - Supporters of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan carry placards displaying a portrait of Khan in Karachi, March 19, 2023. Pakistan's political and judicial crisis began with Khan's removal from office in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence last April.
FILE - Supporters of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan carry placards displaying a portrait of Khan in Karachi, March 19, 2023. Pakistan's political and judicial crisis began with Khan's removal from office in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence last April.

A standoff between the government and judiciary over a key provincial election has pushed Pakistan into a political and judicial crisis, with experts blaming the quagmire on the military's long-standing interference in political affairs.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered elections to be held on May 14 in Punjab, the nation's most populous province, where an opposition party led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan is hugely popular. But the 13-party ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is refusing to comply.

Not backing down, the Supreme Court has refused to reverse its order, even after the defense ministry requested postponement on security grounds.

In a further show of defiance, the parliament has passed a bill called the Practice and Procedure Bill (2023) that would limit the chief justice's authority to take up an issue of important public interest on its own initiative — the procedure is known as suo moto.

The chief justice responded by forming an eight-judge panel comprising himself and many like-minded colleagues from among the court's 15 judges to review the bill. A lawyer filed a reference against the eight judges with the Supreme Judicial Council of Pakistan, however, which hears cases of judicial misconduct.

The bill has since become law.

Origins of the crisis

The crisis began with Khan's removal from office in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence last April, less than four years into his term. Khan then launched a nationwide campaign to push for early elections. Sharif's government refused the demand, saying it would stay in power until the parliament's remaining term ends in August of this year.

In a bid to force early elections this past January, Khan's party dissolved the assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two provinces where it held majorities in the legislatures. According to Pakistan's constitution, elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of an assembly. Until then, a caretaker government runs the affairs and oversees elections.

But it was President Arif Alvi, a member of Khan's party, rather than the election commission, who set an April 9 date for polls in both provinces. That prompted the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take suo moto notice in late February and constitute a nine-member bench of the Supreme Court, led by himself, to determine who had the authority to announce the election date.

Complicating factors

Soon after the suo moto hearings began, two judges recused themselves while two separated from the bench after writing dissenting notes. The remaining five judges, led by the chief justice, ruled 3-2 in favor of holding elections within 90 days or as soon after the deadline as possible, granting Khan a victory.

The governing alliance refused the court's decision, arguing that because a total of four judges of the original bench had dissented, the decision by three judges therefore was a minority decision and not applicable.

When the independent election commission suddenly postponed Punjab polls to October 8, citing a lack of funds and security, Khan's party approached the Supreme Court. By that time, two more dissenters had recused themselves, and the remaining three judges granted Khan another victory by ordering that elections be held on May 14 in Punjab. The court called the election commission's decision to delay polls "unlawful."

The ruling alliance refused in a parliamentary vote to grant funds for the elections. It has been calling for a full court to reconsider the matter, a demand the chief justice so far has ignored.

Grave situation

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a Lahore-based think tank, said Pakistan's economic, political, judicial, and governance crises have come together to create a grave situation for the nation of nearly 230 million. He holds the powerful military responsible.

"The continuous interference of the establishment in the country's political affairs, judicial affairs, almost everything, starting from deciding major policies, making major decisions, I think that has been the major reason for this crisis," Mehboob said. Establishment is a term commonly used in Pakistan to refer to the military.

Mehboob said the interference, which the outgoing army chief acknowledged publicly last year, has weakened state institutions, rendering them unable to address crises effectively.

Parties in the ruling coalition argue that early elections in Punjab, politically the most prized province, will affect the outcome of parliamentary elections later this year. Khan's popularity has increased exponentially since his ouster, and a common perception is that the government is stalling elections for fear of losing.

The 90-day window to hold elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ended on April 14 and April 18, respectively. Mehboob said that by focusing on Punjab and ignoring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the chief justice and his colleagues are not doing "real justice."

Holding elections early in two of the four provinces also will lead to a staggered election schedule in the future, as the assemblies will finish their terms at different times. Mehboob noted this is unprecedented, and in the context of Pakistan it will mean, "there's a likelihood of political interference of whatever party wins election in Punjab."

Karachi-based lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii told VOA the Supreme Court and the ruling alliance are all "acting beyond their station."

He said although the judiciary is in the right to enforce a constitutional requirement, its credibility has been hurt by its past decisions, which were rooted not in differing ideologies but "in individuals, their interests, their political alignments, and lack of ability to, to look forward to the institute's mission and the greater good of an institution."

The crisis, Jaferii said, can be resolved if the Supreme Court "get its own house in a minimum amount of order."

"Then all that remains is for the establishment to actually step back from the support it is giving the coalition government, which gives this coalition government the backbone to … defy the court. So, if that support goes away, and Supreme Court orders are implemented under threat of contempt, I feel that this crisis is over."

The military claims it's not supporting Sharif or opposing Khan, with whom it has had a very public falling out in the last year. Jaferii asserts that the political and judicial crises have put Pakistan's military in a "lose-lose situation."

It is unclear whether polls in Punjab will be held in a few weeks. The chief justice has said the order will not be reversed but has also asked major political parties to negotiate a date for nationwide elections, saying the court could then look into finding a path to hold same-day polls.

Sharif said arbitration is not the court's job.