By Sankar Ray
The gloss of political triumph in the sweeping victory by the Pakistan-Teehreek-e-Insaaf in seven out of eight bye-elections to the National Assembly faded out by a technical knockout by the Election Commission of Pakistan. ECP disqualified the PTI chairman and the erstwhile Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan Niazi who was elected to the lower house of the parliament of Pakistan. The ECP has declared his seat in the NA vacant.
The five member- ECP disqualified Khan in the Toshakhana (gift depository) reference for deliberately concealing material facts as well as making a false statement before it. The ECP’s ruling read: “As the respondent (Imran Khan) has made false statements and incorrect declaration, therefore he has also committed offence of corrupt practices defined under Section 167 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017, punishable under Section 174 of the Elections Act, 2017. The office is directed to initiate legal proceedings and to take follow-up action under Section 190(2) of the Elections Act, 2017.”
Khan has moved the Islamabad High Court through Barrister Ali Zafar seeking annulment of the ECP order. But the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah is unlikely hear the matter as his name is under consideration before the Judicial Commission of Pakistan for his elevation to the Supreme Court. The superior court is expected to grant interim relief in election matters. At the same time Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial is well-known for his rigid verdicts on matters of financial transparency of public position holders.
There are senior and highly respected lawyers who apprehend that if Imran Khan fails to give a money trail regarding the purchase of gifts then he may have to confront serious troubles. Thus lawyers have different perceptions over the ECP order which has triggered a hot debate. So the matter could just prolong and the final say on the matter of disqualification is subject to several factors.
The International News daily in a sympathetic editorial observed, “In so many ways, it seems we have come full circle since the 2018 election and the ugliness which completed that exercise ‘citing that the former Premier Mian Nawaz Sharif too was disqualified, ‘in Pakistan, history repeats itself – this time in the Toshakhana case, with former prime minister Imran Khan facing the same verdict from an Election Commission that he has repeatedly said he does not believe in.”
Undeniably, the PTI boss paved the way for his disqualification by non- sharing of details of Toshakhana gifts and proceeds from their sale during his tenure as the PM prime minister. Obviously, he was accused of having made a false statement and committed the offence of corrupt practices punishable under Section 174 of the Election Act. He has apparently taken the ECP for a ride and ignored the constitutional etiquette towards the electoral authority which possessed constitutional authority.
A section of legal opinion in Islamabad is of the view that obtaining gifts from the Toshakhana through legal means was ‘not the issue here or even selling them but that Imran did not declare them as a parliamentarian has been seen as grounds for disqualification’ Renowned lawyer Salman Akram Raja feels strongly that if someone is to be declared disqualified as “ghair-sadiq” on account of the filing of wrong statements then the declaration of can only come from the judiciary, not the ECP, under Article 62(1)(f) that does not empower the ECP to disqualify any elected peoples’ representative and that filing a wrong statement of assets does not lead to disqualification. “Disqualification can occur only if prosecution is commenced within 120 days of filing and upon conviction sentence of two years or more is awarded. This is no longer possible,” he stated.
Furthermore, if Imran Khan filed deficient asset statements, prosecution against him could have been initiated under section 137 of the Election Act 2017 within 120 days of the filing of such statements, he added. The PTI chief submitted his statement of 31 December 2021 and so the prosecution could have commenced by 30 April 2022. This was not done, according to Raja.
As its sequel, the entire country broke into a ruckus with hundreds of thousands of supporters took to the streets to ‘register their frustration at the latest onslaught on their captain’ the question of disqualification or a technical knockout was an insult to the voters resurfaced. Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz and Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan Peoples Party, who had faced the same fate on different technical grounds in the past.
The disqualification issue, apart from shoot-up of a debate, has irked popular political participants as it might strengthen the rule of law or is just another attempt to provide a level-playing field by applying a tested formula on a new target from time to time. Political analysts raise question of limits of exercise of powers of the State institutions, saying these decisions undermined the political and democratic process. (IPA Service)