Election uncertainty: ECP moves Supreme Court against LHC verdict


Elections

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has moved the Supreme Court of Pakistan, challenging the Lahore High Court verdict that had turned down a notification issued by the poll body to hire the services of bureacrats as returning officers and district returing officers to conduct the general elections.

The Supreme Court on Friday took up the ECP’s petition challenging the LHC verdict.

Previously: Chief election commissioner holds emergency meeting with top judges after LHC’s order on ROs

A three-member SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa and comprising Justice Sardar Tariq Masood and Justice Mansoor Ali Shah are conducting the hearing.

At the onset of the proceedings, the ECP’s lawyer, Sajeel Swati, told the court that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) worker and lawyer Umair Niazi had challenged the ROs decision under Sections 50 and 51 of the Election Act 2017. He said that the Lahore High Court had stopped the election process by suspending the ECP’s decision to hire ROs and DROs from the bureaucracy.

He argued that the ECP had the authority to appoint ROs and DROs from any suitable source, and that the judicial officers were not available for the task. He said that the ECP had written a letter to the judiciary in February for the appointment of judicial officers, but the judiciary had shown its inability to provide them due to pending cases.

He said that the Islamabad High Court did not respond to the ECP’s letter, while the Peshawar High Court referred the matter to the Judicial Policy Making Committee. He said that the ECP had no option but to appoint administrative officers as ROs and DROs.

The bench asked the ECP’s lawyer why the petitioners had challenged the ECP’s decision at this stage, when the relevant clause of the Election Act could have been challenged at any time. The bench also asked what was the obstacle to a transparent election, and whether the petitioners wanted to postpone the elections after the Lahore High Court’s letter.

The Supreme Court expressed surprise over the ECP’s decision to appoint district returning officers (DROs) from the bureaucracy instead of the judiciary for the upcoming general election.

The chief justice asked the ECP counsel, Sajeel Swati, why the commission’s first priority was to get returning officers from the judiciary. He also inquired about the identity and motive of Niazi, who had filed the application in the Lahore High Court (LHC) against the ECP’s notification.

Swati informed the court that Niazi was a PTI worker and that his application was apparently aimed at delaying the elections. He said that Niazi had not contacted the ECP before filing the application and that the LHC had issued a stay order on the ECP’s notification without hearing the commission’s point of view.

The chief justice wondered how the LHC could issue a writ against its own court. He said that the Supreme Court had decided the elections only on the request of PTI and that the court was clear that it would not let any obstacle in the way of the electoral process.

He also asked Swati how many DROs were there across the country and how many of them were deputy commissioners. Swati replied that there were 148 DROs and that all of them were deputy commissioners. He said that the petitioner had claimed that the RSs and DROs from the bureaucracy were not trusted and that their training had been suspended after the LHC’s decision.

The chief justice questioned why the ECP had stopped the training of DROs and said that the notification was suspended, not the training. The ECP counsel said that the training had been done only for one day.

The chief justice also asked if there was any PTI person present in the court and who were the people who did not want the elections to be held. He said that he was surprised that such orders were being passed by the judiciary.

The attorney general also appeared before the court and said that he would assist the court in the matter.

Earlier, ECP Secretary, Omar Hamid Khan, announced that the electoral watchdog will file a petition with the Supreme Court in response to the LHC order suspending the appointment of ROs and DROs from the bureaucracy.

This move follows the ECP’s decision to halt a training session for ROs and DROs, a critical exercise for the upcoming February 8 polls.

The Lahore High Court’s order, issued on a petition by the PTI, has raised concerns among political parties, including the petitioner PTI, about the potential disruption of the general elections. Justice Ali Baqar Najafi, while delivering the verdict, referred the PTI petition to the chief justice with a request to form a larger bench for a comprehensive decision.

In its petition, the PTI contested the appointment of bureaucrats as DROs and ROs, advocating for officials from the lower judiciary to oversee the poll exercise. The suspension of the ECP’s notification regarding these appointments has cast uncertainty over the election schedule, expected to be announced this week.

ECP Secretary Omar Hamid Khan, speaking to reporters at the Supreme Court tonight, confirmed the preparation of a petition against the LHC’s direction, refraining from providing insights into the status of the Feb 8 general elections.

Simultaneously, major political parties, including the PPP, PML-N, and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), have decided to intervene in the case before the LHC. PML-N Central Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb announced the party’s intention to challenge the LHC’s decision, emphasizing the need for timely elections in a post on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter). The PML-N’s legal team is actively preparing a petition in this regard.

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