ISLAMABAD - In a major setback for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Supreme Court on Wednesday barred disqualified prime minister Nawaz Sharif from heading his political party.

The verdict, which sent shudders through country’s political spine, also declared null and void all the decisions taken by Nawaz as party chief since his disqualification last year as parliament member – thereby throwing next month’s Senate elections too in doubt.

This came only a couple of days after the PML-N decided to confront an unsympathetic judiciary at the parliament and other forums, and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi led an attack on the judges in the National Assembly the same day.

The landmark judgment came in response to 17 petitions filed by opposition parties and some individuals that challenged the controversial Elections Act 2017, which had been bulldozed through parliament to pave the way for Nawaz Sharif’s return as PML-N president.

He had lost this position along with country’s premiership as a result of the judgment in Panama Papers case on May 28 when a five-member bench unanimously ruled that Nawaz had not been ‘honest’ and ‘truthful’ in discharging his obligations as a lawmaker — both necessary conditions to hold public office in Pakistan under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution.

Heading a three-judge bench in the Courtroom Number 1 on Wednesday, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar read out a nine-paragraph short order that declared null and void the Article 17 of the Elections Act – which contained Section 203 that had allowed Nawaz Sharif to retake his party’s leadership.

A party head “must necessarily possess” the qualifications entailed in Articles 62 and “be free of the disqualifications” listed in Article 63 of the Constitution, the court said, and ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan to remove Nawaz as PML-N president.

The chief justice in his remarks said it was crucial for parliamentarians to be of good conduct. He further said that since a party head is powerful and political parties control the government, therefore it was mandatory for a party chief to fulfil the requirements of Article 62 and 63.

As expected, the ruling party leaders criticised the verdict while most of the opposition parties, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, celebrated it. Pakistan Peoples Party gave a cautious reaction, however, it urged for implementing the court judgment in letter and spirit.

Politico-legal fallout

There was confusion among the legal and constitutional experts about the verdict and its fallout.

Some in the legal fraternity believed the Senate election would not be cancelled or postponed as a result of the verdict. They however said the PML-N candidates, who were issued tickets by Nawaz, would now have to contest election independently.

Additional Attorney-General Rana Waqar said the nomination papers submitted by the candidates could not be rejected. “After the order, however, the candidates whom tickets were issued by Nawaz Sharif could not use the PML-N symbol,” he said.

Vice Chairman Pakistan Bar Council Kamran Murtaza said the ECP might ask the candidates to rectify their papers, but their nomination papers could not be rejected.

Some experts however were of the opinion that a new schedule for Senate elections may have to be announced after the nullification of issuance of tickets issued by Nawaz Sharif.

Former ECP secretary Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad said that the verdict may not affect the PML-N’s registration as a party, though Senate election has been thrown into doubt.

Barrister Ali Zafar said that according to the judgment it seemed the PML-N nominees whom tickets were issued by Nawaz were out of Senate elections.

Political analyst Hasan Askari also believed the Senate polls would be postponed as a consequence of the Supreme Court ruling.

The decision, while expected, has created uncertainty about political stability, he told AFP news agency. “It has created a serious crisis for (PML-N)... and it has also created uncertainties about the direction of (the) Pakistani political system.”

The initial response from PML-N members indicates that even if he cannot be the head, “Sharif will continue to dominate the party from the sidelines,” Askari said. “So it would be a very uncertain situation at this stage.”

Hearing details

During Wednesday’s court proceedings, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar said that the judiciary had never called any politician a “thief”.

He was referring to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s speech in Parliament on Monday in which he had criticised the judiciary for “insulting” elected officials.

“I was not willing to say this but it has become necessary. The elected representatives of the 207 million people are being dubbed as thiefs, robbers and the mafia,” Abbasi had told the National Assembly.

“Sometimes threats are being hurled that we [judges] will nullify the legislation that you [parliamentarians] have passed,” the PM added.

The CJP in his remarks said that he had praised the country’s leadership and never called anyone dacoit, thief or drug baron.

“We have the recording of the [Panama Papers] case, which will be played when required,” Justice Saqib said, adding that he was not clarifying his position and he did not need to do so. He said he does not “owe anyone an explanation”.

Earlier, Additional Attorney General Rana Waqar told the bench that the constitution provides every citizen with the right to join or form a political party.

He referred to Article 17, which concerns the “freedom of association”, and said that the second clause of the article specifically gives citizens the right to form or join a political party.

Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid’s lawyer, Barrister Farrogh Naseem contradicted him, pointing out that Article 17(2) is “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan”.

He said that it was citizens right that they be governed by honest persons. He said that the fundamental rights should be given precedence on everything. Therefore, he insisted, a person who violates articles 62 and 63 of the constitution should therefore not be allowed to lead a political party since it is a “matter of public leadership”.

PTI counsel Babar Awan said usurpation of fundamental rights must be distinguished from legal and constitution disqualification, adding; the parliamentary democracy was based upon multi-party system, which converted the result of parliamentary election into government.

He drew the court’s attention towards the upcoming Senate elections and said that a disqualified politician was handing out tickets for Senate candidates from the PML-N.

Excerpts from judgement

The verdict read: “Under Article 63-A of the Constitution, the position of a party head of a political party that has representation in, interalia, the Parliament has a central role in the performance of duties by the members of the Parliament. For rendering such a role, a party head must necessarily possess the qualifications and be free of the disqualifications contemplated in Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution.

“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 parliamentary presence.

“As a consequence, it is declared that any person who suffers from lack of qualification under Article 62 or disqualification under Article 63 of the Constitution is debarred from holding the position of ‘party head’ by whatever name called and prohibited from exercising any of the powers provided in Article 63-A of the Constitution, as ‘party head’ or any other power in the said 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 Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution.

“As a result of the above declaration, all steps taken, orders passed, directions given and documents issued by Respondent No.4 [Nawaz Sharif] as party head after his disqualification on 28.07.2017 are also declared to have never been taken, passed, given or issued in the eyes of the law.

The Election Commission of Pakistan is accordingly directed to remove the name of Respondent No.4 (Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif) as president/party head of Respondent No.3 (PML-N from all relevant record(s).