President constitutionally obliged to convene NA session

News Analysis & Zebunnisa Burki
Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

KARACHI: After a few days of reluctance, President Arif Alvi finally recognised his constitutional duty to convene the inaugural session of the National Assembly on the 21st day after the general election.

In a notification late Wednesday night, the president summoned the National Assembly to meet today (February 29), the notification saying this was being done “keeping in view the mandate and implications of [the] timeline given in Article 91(2) and subject to reservations [expressed in the notification].”

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, the National Assembly Secretariat too had issued a notification that announced the National Assembly session for today, on behalf of the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs while also citing Article 91(2) as the legal justification for the session.

Specifically, Article 91(2) says: “The National Assembly shall meet on the twenty-first day following the day on which a general election to the Assembly is held, unless sooner summoned by the president.”

Amidst talk of President Dr Arif Alvi having violated the constitution in having refused to -- till Wednesday night -- convene the first session of the National Assembly after the elections, and with PTI founder chairman Imran Khan praising the president’s decision not to summon the session, the inevitable question on everyone’s minds was whether the president had the right to delay the National Assembly session.

Most legal experts had argued that there was no option for the president to summon the session -- or at least he did not have the power to delay the session. Essentially, it seems the president had run out of reasons or ways to delay an inevitable National Assembly session.

Talking to The News on Wednesday on whether the president had the authority to delay the National Assembly session, lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii’s answer was a categorical no. Jaferii had called the president not summoning the session “yet another case of President Alvi trying to act after the time for actually acting has passed. He should have given a date for an election, instead he wrote an essay. He should have not assented to the amendments to the Official Secrets Act and the Army Act; instead, he blamed his staff. He shouldn’t have signed off on the attempted dissolution of the assembly in April 2022 but he did.”

With a similar final analysis regarding the question, Supreme Court advocate Basil Nabi Malik referred to Article 91(2) and said it “seems to be framed in a manner which disallows anyone from delaying or stopping the meeting of the National Assembly session indefinitely.” Regarding the president and his ‘authority’, Malik said that “by virtue of the words used [in Article 91(2)], it appears that the discretion of the president vests in regard to calling a session of the National Assembly earlier than the stipulated 21-day cut-off period. However, if the president does not exercise such discretion to call the session earlier, the meeting shall nonetheless materialize on the 21st day following the date on which the general election is held.”

There is obviously another-- different -- legal stance on this issue which relies on the president’s Article 54 power to convene parliament while also disputing the speaker’s right to call a session in place of the president.

Speaking to The News earlier on Wednesday, Barrister Ali Tahir said that the president holds the authority to convene or adjourn sessions held by the president under Article 54(1). He explained that “this power is held concurrently with the speaker, but with a condition: the speaker can only exercise this power if a request is made by the members of the House.”

Barrister Tahir added that the president’s powers are limited in that “Article 54 also specifies the minimum number of sessions and days the Assembly must be in session. Relevantly, Article 91(2) states that the National Assembly must convene on the twenty-first day following a general election unless the president summons it sooner.”

At the heart of this dispute is the issue of reserved seats. Barrister Ali Tahir said: “Article 51 underscores that reserved seats are integral to the National Assembly, and the assembly cannot be considered complete without them”. In this way, he said, “the president’s opinion that they must be apportioned according to the law to ensure the National Assembly’s completeness seems justified.”