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ISLAMABAD, June 10: With the election defeat of his party so fresh and just three months of his term left, President Asif Ali Zardari spoke to parliament on Monday like the new government’s own president, and advised them to devise an “appropriate and wise policy” about punishing those who subverted the constitution.

Making a record sixth address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate since taking office in September 2008, his prepared speech seemed aimed at avoiding any comment that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or his PML-N would not stomach, though he did talk of unspecified “reservations” while referring to the general acceptance of the results of the May 11 elections by all political parties, and was often cheered by desk thumping from both the treasury benches and his own PPP.

Even the Benazir Income Support Programme launched by the previous government, which some PML-N officials have said would be renamed — was not named, with the president referring to it only as a “programme of poverty alleviation and women empowerment”, which he said the poor women wanted to be continued and strengthened further.

Unlike a protest walkout by the then opposition PML-N and JUI-F from the last joint sitting in April last year, it was a very smooth affair this time, as the event came just about three months before the president will run out his five-year term and the results of May 11 elections, which reduced his PPP to a distant second position in the 342-seat National Assembly, ruled out any chance for him to run for a second term.

A presidential aide said the new government, which came into being only five days ago with the election of Mr Sharif by the National Assembly as prime minister and his oath-taking on Wednesday, had no input in drafting the president’s speech.

Mr Zardari raised the issue of subversion of the constitution twice while recalling the July 5, 1977 army coup that toppled PPP prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Oct 12, 1999 coup that deposed Mr Sharif and regretted that the abrogation, or suspension of the constitution, which he called “high treason”, was “endorsed by the pillars of the state”.

“That must come to end,” he said in an obvious reference to the superior judiciary’s endorsement of the 1977 coup by General Ziaul Haq and the one in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf due to which, he said, “for decades we have been reeling under the forces of decay”.

The previous PPP-led coalition government had often come under fire from then opposition PML-N for allowing a safe passage to General Musharraf when he went abroad after resigning in 2008 and for not seeking his trial under Article 6 of the constitution for treason, which is punishable with death, for allegedly subverting the constitution, by suspending it and declaring a controversial emergency in November 2007, while his 1999 coup had been upheld on May 12, 2000 by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court bench of which the present chief justice, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, was a member.

Now that a PML-N government has come into being, Mr Zardari seemed to be throwing the ball in its court by choosing the occasion to refer to some recent calls, through public statements and petitions before the Supreme Court, for punishing General Musharraf and his former colleagues for subverting the constitution. He said: “It is for this august parliament and the government to devise an appropriate and wise policy.”

And he promised PPP’s support in what could be a tricky business as none of Pakistan’s four military dictators, who ruled for more than half of its 65-year life, was punished so far for abrogating or suspending the country’s constitution. “I assure you of my support in this,” Mr Zardari said.

While a substantial part of the president’s speech was devoted to recalling the achievements of parliament during the five-year government of his party, including landmark amendments to the constitution that transferred some arbitrary presidential powers to parliament and restored provincial autonomy, the president urged the new government to give high priority to what he called “peace and reconciliation” in the troubled Balochistan province and address the issue of the so-called “missing persons”, who, according to human rights activists, have mostly been picked up by intelligence agencies.

Noting what he called “some progress” made by the government-appointed Commission on Missing Persons, he said “a lot more needs to be done”, and that “it can be done”.

He also spoke of the dire domestic problems such as power shortages and economic hardships and, while citing the launch of Bhasha dam in the north on the River Indus, with a capacity to generate 4,500 megawatts of electricity, and stressing the need to step up energy projects like one to be based on Thar coal, voiced his confidence that “the present government will overcome the challenges”.

Some domestic issues that he cited for action included “a cycle of poverty” that he said must be broken, further strengthening interfaith harmony, need to take measures to prevent misuse of the controversial blasphemy law for settling personal and political scores, integrating the disabled and “special people” in the mainstream of national life, and the need to form a “truth and reconciliation commission” to learn about mistakes of the past.

READY FOR BOTH PEACE AND FIGHT: Apparently as a response to demands from some parties for peace talks with militants mainly operating from hideouts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and causing havoc across the country through suicide attacks, the president restated the policy pursued by the previous government, saying: “We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence. But we should also be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state.”

Reiterating the government policy not to allow use of Pakistan’s soil for terrorist activities against another country or violation of “our sovereignty”, he condemned US drone attacks in Fata as a “serious violation of sovereignty and international law” – which are also “counterproductive and are not acceptable” – while speaking of Pakistan’s desire for better ties with the United States and Europe.

His brief observations on foreign policy included comments as a desire to seek “a conducive and stable regional environment” and improve relations with all countries in the region, wishing success to the Afghan-led reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan, relationship with China to remain “a cornerstone of our foreign policy”, Pakistan “greatly” valuing and to strive to further improve ties with the Muslim world, improving relations with India with peaceful settlement of water disputes and the Kashmir issue “in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people”.

“We also value partnership with the United States and Europe,” the president said, adding: “We need to further strengthen it on the basis of mutual trust, mutual benefit and respect for sovereignty.”

Those listening to the address from the galleries included provincial chief ministers, heads of armed forces and foreign ambassadors.


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