The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) Thursday suspended till July 17 the electricity relief package “Roshan Gharana Program” announced by the Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz. The program offers free electricity to households consuming up to 100 units. Hamza had announced earlier this week that the provincial government will bear the power cost of households that consume up to 100 units of electricity in a month. However, a three-member bench of the ECP – headed by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja – stayed the implementation of program after hearing arguments from the Punjab chief minister in the hearing. The hearing was held after the Commission issued a notice to Hamza, seeking his reply for the alleged violation of the electoral code of conduct by announcing free electricity for a specific group of consumers in the province ahead of the by-elections slated to be held on July 17. The electoral watchdog had sought a reply from the provincial chief executive on July 7. The reply submitted by Hamza’s counsel stated that the CM’s relief package is for entire province except for constituencies where by-elections were being held. “No election is being staged in areas where Gujranwala Electric Power Company (GEPCO) supplies electric power,” Hamza’s counsel maintained, says a news report. He said that nine million consumers will benefit from the program. However, he added that the program hasn’t been planned but included in the approved provincial budget with an allocation of Rs100 billion. The counsel further stated that the purpose of this program is not to attract voters. “Would it also be political if we reduce the electricity price on July 15?” he asked. At this, CEC Sultan asked why Hamza held a separate press conference if the program was already included in the budget. “The announcement garnered more reaction than the program’s approval in the budget. There was no need to make a separate announcement for it if was already a part of the budget,” the CEC remarked. He said that the ECP is bound to give equal opportunities and the announcement has directly affected the by-polls. The ECP directed Hamza to launch the program after the by-election and made it clear to the government that no violation of the Commission’s code of conduct will be tolerated. The relief package, announced just a few days ahead of the by-elections on 20 provincial assembly seats in Punjab, was criticised by the PTI, which had sought the apex court’s intervention into the matter as well. In the notice over violation of the code of conduct for the electoral exercise, the ECP had asked Hamza Shahbaz to appear before it in person or through his counsel on July 7. The notice read: “Take notice and be informed that the Election Commission of Pakistan has announced a schedule for by-elections in 20 constituencies of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab and the poll is scheduled to be held on July 17.” It said the commission had issued a code of conduct on May 25 to provide a level-playing field to all the contesting candidates and political parties. Directives were issued also that no government functionary or elected representative, including a local government functionary or elected representative, shall announce any development scheme for the constituencies, where by-elections are under process till July 17. The relief program supposed to benefit an estimated nine million poor families, about half of the population of the province, had been announced by the Punjab chief minister while speaking at a press conference on Monday. The chief minister had termed it the largest relief package in the history of Pakistan for providing relief to the downtrodden, saying that free electricity would be provided to all the consumers of the province using up to 100 units a month. About half of the population of the province will be provided free electricity from this month and the Punjab government will pay their bills in August. ECP Director General of Law, Mohammad Arshad, noted that it was the commission’s duty to ensure a level playing field for all parties. “The announcement of the Punjab government’s program is an attempt to influence the by-elections.” He called for the program to be stopped since less than 10 days remained till the by-polls. However, Ishaq argued that the consumers would benefit from the program in August. CEC Raja backed the DG Law’s argument and said it was the Election Commission’s duty to provide a level playing field for all parties. “The Election Commission rejects all propaganda to make by-elections controversial. The Election Commission has more support from law enforcement agencies than ever before,” the CEC said. The by-elections in 20 constituencies in Punjab would be held in a transparent manner, he vowed.