Silence in parliament over PML U-turn
By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: Parliament reacted with a stony silence on Thursday to a last-minute U-turn of the PML-N over at least one key issue in landmark constitutional reforms, whose planned presentation this week now appears deadlocked.
Neither the PPP-led coalition nor any major opposition party dared to touch a seemingly hot potato in the National Assembly or the Senate after PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif announced a stunning disagreement over an almost-ready package, shattering government plans to present the document to the two houses of parliament on Friday morning and then have their joint sitting in the evening to be addressed by President Asif Ali Zardari.
Only one opposition member in the National Assembly, former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, asked for a government explanation about the fate of Wednesday’s announcement by Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan about the presentation of the constitutional package prepared by an all-party parliamentary committee after nine months of hard work and the joint sitting – which was not formally convened – but got no response from the treasury benches.
Apparently still adhering to a code agreed by the parliamentary committee not to air differences publicly, there was neither any expression of protest nor support for the PML-N move to reopen an already agreed procedure for the appointment of superior court judges while continuing to oppose renaming the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as Pakhtunkhwa as demanded by government partner ANP.
However, some members of different parties expressed their surprise outside the house amid speculations of a possible backlash against what some observers saw as an impolitic move to delay the reforms by a party that had been calling for their expeditious implementation and accusing the PPP of foot-dragging.
There is bound to a lot of finger-pointing if the deadlock persists amid fears of involvement of forces opposed to the supremacy of parliament that the constitutional reforms aim to bring in line with a Charter of Democracy signed by assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006. The reforms include divesting the presidency of usually prime ministerial powers assumed by former military president Pervez Musharraf, parliamentary oversight of the military budget and judicial appointments, providing for more provincial autonomy and repeal of the controversial Musharraf-era 17th Amendment that protected his decrees.
The PML-N appeared likely to come under intense pressure while it was still reeling from criticism over a statement by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif earlier this month appealing to Taliban to spare his province terror attacks because of a claimed affinity with his party against perceived “foreign dictation”.
Both the National Assembly and the Senate were adjourned till Friday morning for usual sittings but there was no official word about any new plans for a joint sitting of parliament or meeting of the parliamentary committee after it failed to hold one on Thursday evening for a joint signing of the package by all its members.
The committee chairman, PPP Senator Raza Rabbani, who was recently appointed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as his adviser to enable him to pilot the planned 18th constitution amendment bill, briefly appeared in the National Assembly twice, apparently looking for someone, but went away without taking his seat.
Members of the PML-Q earlier staged a walkout from the National Assembly to protest against what their party’s NWFP president Amir Muqam called rigging in the by-election on Wednesday for a Punjab provincial assembly seat in Gujrat that was won by a PML-N candidate with PPP support.
The charge was rejected by PML-N member Saad Rafiq as well as the prime minister’s political adviser Nawabzada Ghazanfar Gul of the PPP, both of whom accused the PML-Q of organising violent protests in Gujrat because “Chaudhry brothers” (PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and former Punjab chief minister Pervez Elahi) were this time not allowed to rig an election in their hometown.