A constitutional issue
In the midst of the ongoing political crisis over the Terms of Reference for the proposed judicial commission to probe the Panama papers, another political event has beclouded the national landscape. In an unprecedented development, PM Nawaz Sharif, the chief executive of the federation, is undergoing surgery in London that will possibly keep him out of the country for several weeks.
Not surprisingly, a constitutional debate has begun in the country about who will run the government's affairs while Nawaz Sharif undergoes an open heart surgery and then stays in a London hospital for about two weeks to recuperate.
Taking notice of the brewing debate, the prime minister's office has issued a statement saying that Nawaz Sharif has been overseeing the government's affairs from London with the assistance of his principal secretary, military secretary and other staff members.
Further, he is being kept abreast of the routine matters of the country and his orders and decisions are being conveyed to the concerned quarters.
It may be noted here that the most important upcoming constitutional business coming up next week is the federal budget for fiscal year 2016-17 which is scheduled to be presented on June 3. Before that, a meeting of the National Economic Council is constitutionally mandatory at which important decisions like finalisation of national development outlay and macro-economic plan are to be taken. The question is: Who will approve the budget and who will chair the NEC meeting in the absence of the chief executive? According to the official statement, PM Nawaz will supervise the two important tasks through a video link from the UK.
Legal opinion in the country is divided over the issue. Former CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry has called for the installation of an interim prime minister until Nawaz Sharif recovers and resumes his office. In his view a constitutional vacuum will occur if the prime minister is ill and under anesthesia.
He has suggested that to provide legal cover to the passage of the budget and avoid a constitutional and financial crisis, the PM should step down to pave the way for his successor to be elected as the new leader of the house. The media has reported that the PM has delegated his authority to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. But, according to Justice Chaudhry, Dar cannot become chief executive because he is a senator and the premier has to be from the National Assembly.
In his view there is need for another prime minister, as the Constitution in consequence of the 8th amendment doesn't allow a senior minister to take charge of prime ministerial affairs. Justice Chaudhry has emphasized that that the election of a new PM is all the more necessary because when the prime minister would be undergoing surgery, he would be anesthetized and thus would not be in a position to make decisions in case of a war or an emergency.
However, other constitutional experts disagree. According to them, there is no constitutional provision for bringing in a new prime minister during the absence of the incumbent. In support of their stand they cite Article 90( 2) of the Constitution which reads: "In the performance of his functions under the Constitution, the prime minister may act either directly or through the federal ministers."
There may not be an immediate constitutional crisis, but the situation that has arisen has no precedent in our history. The government needs to look into whether the Constitution itself or the rules of business need to be changed to introduce a formal temporary transfer of the chief executive's authority. Under the constitution the public elects its representatives who choose a chief executive.
The government is not private business where ad hoc arrangements are made. In an elected government like ours, the constitution has to be followed in letter and spirit.