Patriotism Mantra vs Constitutional Battle in Pakistan
It’s almost 11.00 p.m. in Istanbul, 9th of April however Pakistan that is two hours ahead has entered a new day, 10th of April 2022. The political tumult that had held Pakistan hostage for several weeks has considerably died down. Right at the brink of Supreme Court of Pakistan’s deadline given on 7th of April to hold voting on the 9th, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan has resigned to avoid the contempt of court’s judgement for not holding the vote of no confidence against the country’s Prime Minister (now former) Imran Khan. The former speaker from Pakistan Muslim League (N) has taken the dais to perform as acting speaker. Voting has concluded and the coalition of opposition parties has bagged 174 votes, 2 over the required threshold to oust the PM and Imran Khan has become the first prime minister in the country’s history to be ousted by a no-confidence vote.
Pakistan adopts a parliamentary form of government with Prime minister as the head of state. The National Assembly of Pakistan houses 342 members 272 of which are directly elected. The remaining 70 are reserved seats, 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims. With this composition, the party or coalition whipping support from at least 172 members gets the leader of the house, Prime Minister elected, who is the head of the government in the country’s parliamentary system. In the last elections in year 2018 Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won 155 seats to become the largest party of the house yet falling short of at least 17 seats required to make its government. PTI established a coalition with some smaller parties including MQM, PML-Q, BAP, GDA, AML, JWP[i] and some independent candidates to constitute its ruling alliance.
The constitution’s article 95 gives the members of assembly the right to move a motion for vote of no confidence against the Prime minister. As per Rules and Procedures of Conduct of Business of House, the speaker is bound to summon the requisitioned session not later than 14 days from the date of submission of requisition in the National Assembly Secretariat. As per Rule 37(6) of Rules of Procedures of Conduct of Business in the House, the resolution of no-confidence will not be voted upon before the expiry of three days or later than seven days from the day the resolution is moved in the National Assembly.
The opposition parties that had long been criticizing Khan’s government both for its economic mismanagement and ‘anti-corruption’ drive targeted at jailing opposition leaders finally submitted a notice of resolution of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan along with the requisition to summon a session of the lower house of the Parliament in the National Assembly Secretariat on Tuesday, March 08, 2022.
Meanwhile joint opposition with 162 seats in the parliament started its negotiations with the government’s allies to whip up their support for the no confidence move in exchange of commitments for fulfilment of their demands including key positions in the future set up. PTI also did its best to keep its coalition with its partners intact with luring them of additional benefits and positions to the extent of offering the chief ministership of Punjab (the biggest province) to PML-Q that had mere 5 seats out of 342 in National Assembly and 10 of the 371 seats in the provincial assembly. Government’s coalition partners including MQM and BAP fearing a loss in upcoming elections due to sky rocketing inflation and other performance issues decided to side with joint opposition taking their total toll to 176.
An important role was that of PTI’s defecting members. It was widely believed that opposition parties had succeeded in getting support from at least 15-20 members from PTI taking their expected votes in the no-confidence move to almost 200. PTI claimed these were sell outs and received millions of rupees from opposition parties to sell their votes, a claim that all of defecting members refuted. These were hop offs who had earlier left other parties to join PTI pre-2018 elections smelling the establishment’s support for PTI back then and were now departing from PTI at the brink of new elections. They however faced the threat of being de-seated for crossing floor as per article 63-A of the constitution that empowers the party heads to request de-seating of members who vote against the party guidelines at certain occasions.
The ruling PTI coalition had realised that they had lost their majority in the parliament. The speaker therefore kept delaying first the calling of session and then voting. The session due in 14 days was delayed till 25th march[ii] which was then adjourned until 28th without allowing the members to table the no confidence resolution.
Meanwhile PTI held a big public meeting in the capital, Islamabad, on the 27th of March where the Prime minister waved a letter claiming to have learnt a foreign conspiracy that was aimed at ousting him from power and to which opposition parties had become a tool. He claimed that US in cohorts with domestic political players, is trying to topple his government, as a ‘punishment’ for deepening relations with Russia and China. Interestingly, he was curiously evasive in disclosing the content of the letter at the moment and that from whom he had received it stating that he would make it public at an ‘appropriate time’.
After a couple of adjournments, when the lower house was to vote on the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan on April 3, Law Minister Fawad Chaudhry read out Article 5 and accused the opposition of disloyalty to the state. The deputy speaker Qasim Suri reading from an already prepared text, first disallowed the no-trust vote by ruling it to be part of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ and in violation of Article 5[iii] of the Constitution. PM Khan later announced he was dissolving the National Assembly and the attempt to topple an elected government had been foiled. President Arif Alvi, who was called to PM House, endorsed the dissolution of the assembly under Articles 48(1) and 58(1) of the Constitution and subsequently the premier dissolved the federal cabinet as well.
Opposition believing that the speaker had breached the constitution by not allowing a vote and accusing them of being perpetrators in a foreign conspiracy vowed to take the matter to the highest court, Supreme Court of Pakistan. To avoid a constitutional crisis, the Supreme Court itself took a suo moto notice and after deliberations of several days the five-member bench unanimously set aside the deputy speaker's ruling to dismiss the no-confidence vote and the NA's dissolution. The opposition team made a case of how the speaker’s ruling was a clear violation of Article 95 of the constitution, with an intent to subvert the constitution. The apex court ordered the Speaker National Assembly to summon session of the Lower House of the Parliament on Saturday, 09 April to hold the no-confidence vote.
Analysts widely believed that the speaker this time would not prolong the no confidence further or subvert constitution to not risk proceedings of court’s contempt against him. Yet, the whole day passed and long speeches were made on the alleged conspiracy by the treasury benches but multiple demands to start no-confidence proceedings were turned down. At 11.45 p.m., exactly 15 minutes before crossing the court’s deadline the speaker of the assembly Asad Qaisar announced his resignation handing the chair to former speaker Sardar Ayaz from the panel of chairmen, who ran proceedings of the House during the voting on the no-confidence resolution. Interestingly, none of dissident PTI members participated in the voting process and thus averted their disqualification.
The tumult calmed and the long wait of the combined opposition to throw Imran Khan out of power ended after midnight on Saturday when all tactics by the ruling party met with defeat and the National Assembly expressed no-confidence in the prime minister and the leader of the house. The no-trust motion was successful with 174 votes, whereas minimum 172 votes were required for the success, while the PTI members left proceedings before start of the voting process.
PTI has however been successful in popularizing its mantra that local parties at the behest of foreign establishment have brought the PTI government to its knees. To the others however Khan’s patriotism ‘mantra’ has not worked, and the Supreme court has buried the doctrine of necessity by upholding constitution and ruling that trampling of the Constitution by a civilian chief executive were not to be spared. The house will now meet on the 11th to choose the country’s new prime minister, possible Shehbaz Sharif while the PTI may resign from the assemblies and pour onto roads to show their muscle.
[i] Muthidda Qaumi Mmovement (MQM); Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q); Balochistan Awami Party (BAP); Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA); Awami Muslim League (AML) & Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP)
[ii] According to government, it was delayed due to the organisation of OIC’s 48th session of council of foreign ministers in Islamabad on 22-23 March 2022.
[iii] Article 5 states that loyalty to state is the basic duty of every citizen.