Despite the ceaseless heckling from the opposition benches that dominated the joint parliamentary sitting Wednesday, the Imran government hardly faced any significant hurdles when it came to getting a huge package of laws on multiple subjects passed, which had been rejected by the upper house of parliament, even after being approved by the lower house.
Stonewalling a plethora of technical objections, which many opposition legislators tried hard to present, Asad Qaisar, the national assembly speaker, ensured a speedy passage. Besides abandoning the pretentions of neutrality, he also appeared facilitating the visible bulldozing of these laws while disregarding some established rules, regulating the legislative process. But the opposition could imagine and execute no effective means to check him.
If you go by the logic of numbers only, the combined opposition parties apparently enjoy a slight edge of around six votes, when a joint parliamentary sitting is summoned. The government had thus been feeling shy, so far, to summon it.
But the eye count of the joint sitting Wednesday clearly conveyed that at least 36 legislators were missing from the opposition benches. Thanks to their absence, the Imran government could prove the majority of ten, after a head count regarding a FATF-related Bill. That certainly dampened the defiant spirit and opposition legislators walked out of the house in utter frustration. It helped the government to amble through the rest of agenda like a delighted victor.
Yet after completion of the legislative process, Prime Minister Imran Khan sounded surprisingly sedate. He did criticise the opposition through his speech in the house for allegedly disregarding what he described as “the supreme national interest;” also kept referring to “corrupt practices” of their leaders. But refrained from conveying the message of my-way-or-the-highway.
After establishing its command and control over the process of a joint parliamentary sitting Wednesday, the ruling coalition had finally smashed the perception that due to their brute majority in the Senate, the opposition parties could always thwart its legislative initiatives. In spite of being present in both the houses of parliament with impressive numbers, all the opposition parties even if firmly united, could not stop the government led by Imran Khan from delivering its agenda of “reform and good governance.”
The most significant laws passed by the joint sitting Wednesday were ostensibly aimed at ensuring Pakistan’s exit from the grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATA). Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had been facilitating the smooth and speedy passage of some of these laws.
The cooperation extended by the main opposition parties for the smooth passage of FATA-related bills had stunned and annoyed their allies among the smaller parties. It also ruined the chances of a grand alliance of all the opposition parties with the potential of destabilizing the ruling coalition through street agitation.
Still, the Imran government never felt motivated to feel grateful. Instead it kept promoting the narrative that Pakistan had reached FATF’s grey list, not due to “terror financing” only. Another main reason was the “money laundering,” top opposition leaders like Asif Ali Zardari and the Sharifs had reckless been indulging for decades. By supporting the FATF-connected bills, “slaves”, presumably crowding PML-N and PPP benches in both houses of parliament were rather “atoning the sins of their leaders.”
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The same “slaves” were also accused of “blackmailing” the government. Minister after minister continued to loudly claim, both within parliament and on TV screens, that in return for their support of smooth passage of FATF-connected laws, the main opposition parties were demanding the softening of National Accountability Bureau (NAB), currently pursuing many opposition leader after invoking serious charges of corruption against them.
After drumming the said story, the vocal spokespersons of the Imran government would rudely tell the opposition that combating corruption remained the key agenda for Prime Minister Imran Khan. He was just not willing to forget and forgive on this front. With a very thick skin the PML-N and PPP leaders continued to disregard the said narrative, which seriously damaged their collective reputation.
But the same narrative eventually triggered second thoughts among a large number of legislators, representing PML-N and the PPP in the national assembly and the senate. Their leaders also had to smell coffee after discovering that in the name of pleasing FATF, legal eagles of the Imran government had cunningly drafted some laws, which furnish “draconian powers” for law enforcing agencies. The government would surely feel tempted to “fix” its opponents with vicious abuse of these powers. Two FATF-related laws were thus “rejected” by the opposition-led Senate early this month.
Instead of assuaging the opposition through overt or covert contacts, the government rather dared to summon the joint parliamentary sitting to get all those laws approved, which the opposition had been rejecting in the senate by taking advantage of its massive majority in that house. Initially, the government’s move looked “audaciously arrogant” to simpletons of this world. But the government seemed confident of its manipulative skills.
By the way, it had already employed the same skills, brilliantly, in August-2019. Feeling too comfortable about its absolute majority in the senate, the opposition parties decided to unseat its Chairman, Sadiq Sanjrani, by tabling a motion of no confidence against him. When the motion had formally been moved in house, 64 senators stood to support it. But stamping the ballot in solitude of the polling booth 15 of them preferred to “vote by their conscience.”The opposition could yet not locate the turncoats from their ranks.
Even during the senate meeting of Wednesday morning, it had been established hours before the joint parliamentary sitting that the opposition would not be able to collect sufficient numbers for embarrassing the opposition. Head count was enforced there for the passage of a FATF-related bill. The government faced a defeat, no doubt. But the combined opposition parties only had 34 members present in the house, while the government showed the strength of 31.
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The joint parliamentary sitting of Wednesday has certainly not surprised the acute observers of our political scene. Happenings there were the logical outcome of the neither here nor there sort of strategy, which Shehbaz Sharif had brought to PML-N.
He remained mostly missing from the national assembly. In his absence, only a select group of his loyalists from a huge crowd of 80-plus members of the national assembly clearly know how to go about the parliamentary business. For the past many months, they looked like a rudderless crowd, hoping against hope that “deal making skills” of Shehbaz Sharif would manage “better days” for them, But instead of leading his crowd to green pastures, he and his immediate family, including women, faced a full throttled assault by NAB and other anti-crime agencies. Almost each day, TV screens almost shriek with serious charges of corruption and money laundering against him and his immediate family.
As the second largest group in the national assembly, Pakistan Peoples Party has also been feeling almost crippled with ‘to be or not to be’ kind of questions. PTI handlers of parliamentary business took full advantage of the perpetual confusion, which has literally paralyzed the main opposition parties. They hardly have any strategy, or perhaps the will as well, to bounce back in the game.