ISLAMABAD: The prime minister’s illness has stirred up a constitutional debate on who will run the government’s affairs while Nawaz Sharif undergoes an open heart surgery and recuperates in a London hospital for at least two weeks. A former chief justice of Pakistan says an interim prime minister must be brought in till the incumbent is back at the helm – but other legal and constitutional experts disagree.
Cognisant of the brewing debate, the prime minister’s office quickly issued a statement on Saturday to preclude rumour mongering. Nawaz Sharif has been overseeing the government’s affairs with the assistance of his principal secretary, military secretary and other staff members, it said. In London, he is being kept abreast of the routine matters of the country and his directions are accordingly conveyed to the concerned quarters.
With a little help, Nawaz to oversee state affairs from London
“The prime minister is in constant contact with the federal ministers, cabinet members and other concerned. It is important to note that there are no postponements or delays in the matters pertaining to the routine functioning of the state,” it added.
The most important upcoming constitutional business is the federal budget for fiscal year 2016-17 which, according to the finance ministry, will be presented on June 3. Prior to that, a meeting of the National Economic Council is constitutionally mandatory. Important decisions like finalisation of national development outlay and macro-economic plan are taken in the NEC.
Who will approve the budget and who will chair the NEC meeting in the chief executive’s absence? The government said in a statement that Premier Nawaz will supervise the two important tasks through a video link from the United Kingdom.
However, former chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry minced no words in calling for the installation of an interim prime minister until Nawaz Sharif recovers and resumes the office.
London visit: Nawaz to undergo open heart surgery
“What will you do if the prime minister is ill and given anesthesia? Obviously, you need another prime minister. The Constitution doesn’t allow a senior minister to take charge of prime ministerial affairs. This provision has been removed in the 8th amendment,” Chaudhry told a news conference on Saturday.
Noted lawyer and constitutional expert SM Zafar argued otherwise. “There is no provision of bringing in a new prime minister during the absence of the incumbent,” he told The Express Tribune. He cited 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.”
According to Zafar, Article 90(2) is clear enough to dismiss the demand for a new prime minister. “The Constitution is there to remove ambiguities and not to create controversies. There are reports that the prime minister has delegated his authority to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. If he has, there is nothing illegal in it,” Zafar said.
Justice (retd) Chaudhry said he has ‘deep respect’ for Ishaq Dar. “There is nothing personal. It is all about national interest. Dar cannot become a prime minister during Nawaz Sharif’s absence because Dar is a senator and the premier has to be from the National Assembly,” he added.
“What has happened to Nawaz Sharif is beyond any human’s control. I’m not a heartless man. I pray for his speedy recovery, good health and long life, but you just cannot forget what kind of situation our country is in. If there is war or emergency or any kind of untoward happening that requires the prime minister’s presence to take care of, who would deal with it?”
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However, a former associate judge of Supreme Court, Fakhruddin G Ebrahim endorsed SM Zafar. “The Constitution is very clear. The prime minister can delegate his authority to his cabinet aide(s) when he is away. And the premier has not left the country forever. He will be back soon. There is no need to be hypothetical,” he told The Express Tribune.
Nawaz Sharif is scheduled to undergo an open heart surgery in London where he went for a routine medical checkup before his physicians discovered that his heart condition needed an immediate surgical procedure.
“It is natural and understandable that the prime minister will be off from any activities when he is actually operated on by doctors. God willing, soon after the surgery, he will be supervising state’s affairs with the same spirit and energy,” his office said in Saturday’s statement.
Media reports quoted his son Hassan Nawaz as having told a TV channel that it would take the prime minister two-weeks rest before he is able to travel and start working.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2016.
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