Running this country like a one-party state By Nusrat Javed

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Those who monitor and regulate the parliamentary business for the Imran government had discreetly conveyed to a select number of ruling party MNAs, around four days ago, that a fresh session of the National Assembly would start from Monday, March 29, 2021. And they must ensure their presence in Islamabad on the said date to prevent the Opposition from embarrassing the government by pointing out the lack of quorum. After ensuring the preventive arrangements, President of Pakistan was then asked to formally summon the new session and he quickly signed the required notification.

The Opposition felt completely baffled about it. Perhaps they took it for granted that due to frightening surge of the third wave of COVID-19, when the government is actively considering the idea of enforcing a strict lockdown in various parts of the country, the National Assembly might not be summoned, that too in such haste.

Still, the government felt forced to go for it, primarily for two reasons. First is the constitutional compulsion of holding at least 130 sittings in a parliamentary year. The ongoing parliamentary year will end by the third week of August this year and the National Assembly could yet not meet for more than 53 days. In spite of Corona, it has to hold 77 more sittings to meet the constitutional requirement.
But the instant cause remains furnishing a fresh lease of to some laws, already enforced through ordinances issued by the President.

At the outset of Monday sitting, Raja Pervez Ashraf was justified in worriedly questioning the need of summoning the National Assembly during the menacing third wave of COVID-19. The former prime minister from the PPP benches also wondered as to why the Speaker had not cared to invite Opposition members for a meeting of House Business Advisory Committee. Before the start of each parliamentary session, this committee traditionally meets in the Speaker’s chambers. The government and opposition representatives try to develop consensus about how to deal with parliamentary business during its meeting. We, however, are not living in normal times. Either/or divide among our politicians has rather reached the point where the opposition members are even not willing to visit the Speaker’s office for informal meetings. And the Speaker is simply not pushed about it. His indifference clearly reflects the contempt that Prime Minister Imran Khan and his colleagues strongly feel for “looters and plunderers,” allegedly leading and crowding the opposition benches in the present assembly.

After many months of enduring relentless humiliation, the opposition parties finally attempted to assert their relevance by assembling in a grand alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), in September last year. The alliance held a series of public rallies in all the major cities of Pakistan. Fiery speeches were delivered there to convey the feeling as if the opposition parties were preparing to launch a mass movement with the idea of “restoring the real democracy” in this country.

The momentum they had built eventually helped the opposition parties in jolting the government by defeating its nominee for a Senate seat from Islamabad on March 3, 2021. After many months of complete hibernation, Yousaf Raza Gillani, a former prime minister, seemed to have resurrected him to wage political battles and stunned observers by defeating Dr Hafiz Sheikh.
The victory of Gillani was not taken as a personal loss to Dr Hafiz Sheikh, a ‘technocrat’ from Jacobabad. After his induction in the federal cabinet, the Imran government finally got a ‘bailout package’ from IMF, after prolonged negotiations. Pakistan also promised to take SOS-looking initiatives to ‘reform’ its economic and fiscal management empowering Dr Hafiz Sheikh to exclusively execute those reforms.

His ‘rejection’ by the majority in a directly elected house of Pakistan’s parliament also transmitted the message as if Prime Minister Imran Khan was not heading a stable and invulnerable government. Little wonder, three days after the defeat of Dr Hafiz Sheikh, Imran Khan felt forced to prove his majority by seeking a fresh vote of confidence from the National Assembly.
Things for the Imran government began to look comfortable from than onwards. Gillani failed to capture the office of Chairman Senate and ended up as being recognised as the opposition leader in the Upper House of parliament. This development triggered deep differences within the PDM. The grand alliance of the opposition parties seemed dead but yet not buried since Gillani’s recognition/selection/election as the opposition leader in the Senate.

The fresh vote of confidence also helped the Imran government to get US500 million dollars from the IMF, as another installment of the ‘bailout package,’ expected to eventually reach the figure of six billion US dollars. Yet, to get the said installment, the government had to enforce a kind of mini-budge, once again through an ordinance signed by the president in haste.

Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N tried hard to convince the Speaker during the Monday sitting that Article 73 of Pakistan’s Constitution firmly prevents the attempt to introduce new taxes through a Presidential Ordinance. The recently enforced ordinance had massively withdrawn a significant number of concessions promised to tax payers. If you carefully calculate, the government rather intends to collect a huge amount of around 700 billion rupees through new measures announced via a recently enforced ordinance.
To build his case, Ahsan Iqbal did concede that the President could surely issue an ordinance when parliament was not in session to meet any emergency on the legal front. But introduction of new taxes or withdrawing some of them was not allowed through the presidential ordinance. Such measures definitely fall in the category of a “money bill,” which can only be approved by directly elected national assembly of Pakistan.

Asad Qaisar sought the opinion of Hammad Azhar, the minister of industries who often speaks for Dr Hafiz Sheikh, both in the National Assembly and the Senate. Instead of wasting time in “legal” hair splitting, Azhar preferred to arrogantly remind Ahsan Iqbal that while in the government, Nawaz Sharif had massively been tweaking with revenue schemes by issuing Statuary Regulatory Orders, commonly known as SROs. Imran government, on the contrary, always acts transparent whenever it comes to introduce changes in revenue schemes and structures.

The confidence-oozing arrogance of Azhar, during Monday sitting of the National Assembly, instantly sparked rumours that Prime Minister Imran Khan was almost set to remove Dr Hafiz Sheikh and Azhar, the youthful member from Lahore, would replace him. One preferred to wait and watch.

To seek clearance regarding the hot rumour, I tried to contact two federal ministers, considered close to the Prime Minister these days. One preferred to ignore my WhatsApp message after reading it. But the reply another minister provided neither confirmed nor denied the rumour.

Returning to house proceedings, one should also report that Dr Babar Awan, another unelected advisor of the Prime Minister for dealing with parliamentary business, made a serious attempt to compensate for arrogant conduct of Hammad Azhar. He unleashed an academic discussion to find out whether recently issued presidential ordinance fell in the category of a money bill or not.

Visibly, Asad Qaisar, the Speaker, was too eager to settle the matter there and then by passing a ruling. But Raja Pervez Ashraf literally begged him to refrain from it. And for a change the Speaker opted to show some mercy by announcing that he would seek a meeting with the law minister and Attorney General to clear his mind. He also asked the Opposition to nominate people for attending the proposed meeting.

Yet, I am forced to concede that fiscal measures, announced through the Presidential Ordinance, are here to stay and our so-called “representatives” will certainly fail to disapprove them. The Imran government has recently reestablished its majority in the National Assembly and it will not feel shy to run this country like a one-party state.