Current session to take up constitution bill, NA told
By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly stretched its calendar on Thursday to begin what is billed to be a historic spring session in which the government said it intended to bring promised constitutional amendments to restore a genuine parliamentary system in the country.
And a strenuous job awaiting parliament members to make changes ranging from empowering parliament to granting more provincial autonomy appeared lightened by an off-the-cuff promise by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that he could allot them residential plots of land in Islamabad if they all agreed to take them.
But what the ruling coalition and at least one opposition party saw as a promising beginning of a likely three-week session was marred by a tirade from opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who, true to his usual form, lashed out at the government for “making a fun of itself and this house” over the past two years, especially targeting President Asif Ali Zardari and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, and protested for not being taken into confidence for calling an “unscheduled” session.
However, from the government side, PPP chief whip and Labour and Manpower Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah came out with a cool-headed response, telling the house that the session had been called out of the parliamentary calendar primarily to receive the report of an all-party parliamentary committee on constitutional reforms and then a constitutional amendment bill designed mainly to implement the famous Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif in 2006.
“We want that bill to come before this parliament before the start of the next parliamentary year,” he said after recalling Mr Zardari’s initiative at the start of his presidency in September 2008 to call for constitutional amendments that would rid his office of the usually prime ministerial powers assumed by former military president Pervez Musharraf such as dissolution of the National Assembly and appointment of armed forces’ chiefs and provincial governors.
The minister also said the parliamentary committee headed by PPP Senator Raza Rabbani would submit its reports to the house “as soon as possible”, but he gave no date for this or for the presentation of the constitutional amendment bill, which must be passed by a two-thirds majority in both the 342-seat National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate.
As the new parliamentary year begins on March 16, it was earlier speculated that President Zardari would make a mandatory address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Senate on the same day or on March 23 and that the constitutional amendments could come about that time.
But the current session began five days before the end of the outgoing parliamentary year and would spread to the new year without a break.
Mr Shah said if the session had not been called before March 16, the opposition would have accused President Zardari at the time of his address of delaying the amendments, which would make him only a figurehead president as originally envisioned by the 1973 Constitution.
The minister said he had tried but could not contact Chaudhry Nisar before the house was summoned although he had consulted the chief whip of the opposition PML-N, Sheikh Aftab Ahmed, as well as parliamentary leaders of other parties in the house.
Before Chaudhry Nisar — who threatened his party would in future boycott a session if it were not consulted beforehand — took the floor, PML-Q’s senior member Riaz Hussain Pirzada actually thanked the government for keeping him informed about its plans to bring the constitutional amendments during this session, which a press release issued after a meeting of the house business advisory committee earlier said would “continue for approximately three weeks”.
“The committee was informed that the report of the constitutional reforms committee is likely to be presented in the ensuing session of the National Assembly if it completes its work,” the release said.
The prime minister’s assurance about plots in Islamabad came after a PML-Q member, Shahnaz Sheikh, asked whether a salary raise given to the superior judiciary earlier this week was “a political bribe” and wondered why parliament members were criticised for demanding plots and deprived of them when such plots had been given to judges, bureaucrats and journalists.
Mr Gilani said the pay raise had been given to remove “discrimination” and, while referring to plots, said: “If the MPs agree on this, I will have no objection.”
Earlier, the house approved a bill seeking an amendment to the Code of Civil Procedure of 1908 to increase the amount of compensatory costs a court might award in case of false or vexatious claims or defences to Rs100,000 from Rs25,000 as recommended in the national judicial policy.