Braving protests, Zardari calls for new consensus
By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD: Braving what turned out to be only restrained protests by a divided opposition in parliament on Tuesday, President Asif Ali Zardari invited all political parties to a national dialogue to achieve a five-point economic consensus to match one they had on constitutional reforms last year.
And the president had a solemn advice to the protesters from three parties who walked out of a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Senate in two groups after he began his address to open the fourth parliamentary year of the present PPP-led government: “Let us strive to keep our egos aside.
Let political forces stop challenging each other, merely for point-scoring. It weakens democracy in the long run. The task of the leadership is to unite, not divide.”
He cited energy shortage, circular debt (owed mainly to power, gas and oil companies), taxation reforms, restructuring of public sector entities and documenting economy as major issues that he said “we need to build consensus” on, to resolve them.
“These are the problems which the future generations will inherit if not addressed through collective wisdom,” the president said after citing the success of the consensus on constitutional reforms in the shape of last year’s landmark Eighteenth Amendment that clipped previously arbitrary presidential powers and restored a genuine parliamentary democracy.
“We need to build a national consensus on these issues,” he said and added: “Tough decisions must be taken together. I invite all political parties for a national dialogue.”
But the opposition parties, which were the main focus of the president’s appeal, didn’t seem eager to grab his olive branch as they made his fourth mandatory address to a joint sitting somewhat sour while all his three previous speeches since taking office in September 2008 had been trouble-free.
Though the protest appeared to be a restrained affair as the protesters, just walked out to a big resting lounge rather than stay in the house and make uproar there, it exposed divisions within the opposition camp, of which the Pakistan Muslim League-N is the main component.
Lawmakers of the PML-N, which had threatened to avenge the leading role played by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in opposition protests in the Punjab provincial assembly against alleged political horse-trading, walked out shouting “no, no” after Speaker Fahmida Mirza disallowed opposition leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to speak on a point of order, on the ground that no business other than the presidential address could be allowed in the joint sitting.
The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, the PPP’s former coalition partners, and former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherapo accompanied the PML-N, apparently in line with an agreement among them.
But as a mark of their own rivalry with the PML-N, legislators of the second largest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), remained seated and heard the president’s address for about five minutes before an overwhelming majority of them quietly walked out of the chamber, led by party chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.
At least six PML-Q members of the so-called “like-minded group” did not join their party’s protest. The PML-Q action seemed to be motivated primarily by the prosecution of Chaudhry Moonis Elahi, a son of former Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, by the Federal Investigation Agency for alleged involvement in a land scam in Punjab, but linked also to other issues including the recent acquittal of a US spy agency operative, Raymond Davis, by a Lahore court of a charge of double murder after the payment of diyat, or blood money, and US drone attacks in tribal areas.
Four federal ministers, led by PPP chief whip Khurshid Ahmed Shah, had gone to the protesters to try to bring them back to the house, but eventually returned disappointed.
In his 25-minute speech, which briefly reviewed the progress of three years of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s government in different fields, the president sounded very firm about upholding the post-18th Amendment supremacy of parliament and in the government’s war against militancy.
“We will uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and the parliament,” he said, apparently seeking to address concerns expressed by some quarters about some decisions of the superior judiciary.
“We will not permit anyone to usurp the powers that rightly belong to parliament. We believe that all state organs should work within their parameters as laid down in the Constitution.”
About militancy, he said: “We will fight the militants to the finish. We will not back down. We will ensure a modern and moderate Pakistan, the Pakistan of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.”
And apparently seeking to reassure neighbouring India and Afghanistan, the president said Pakistan could not and would not “permit use of our soil for terrorist activities against any other country”.
Cautioning that the fight against militancy “may be long and bitter” he said: “But we have no other option except to win. Win we will. And soon insha-Allah.”
And in some extempore remarks, which seemed aimed at addressing concerns of the government-allied Muttahida Quami Movement about the latest spate of perceived target-killings in Karachi, the president promised action against those responsible for the violence and said law and order in the country’s commercial capital would be maintained “at all cost”.
Among the guests to watch the joint sitting, which lasted a little more than half an hour, were armed forces chiefs, provincial governors and chief ministers and foreign ambassadors.