ISLAMABAD, June 20: As the fate of early collection of an enhanced general sales tax (GST) seemed hanging in the balance, the PML-N government’s first budget received more battering in the National Assembly on Thursday with one senior opposition figure demanding withdrawal of the whole budget as had happened once in the 1980s.
On the final day of a general debate on the budget for fiscal 2013-14, opposition criticism seemed harder than the defence by the supporters of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 16-day-old government.
Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who unveiled what critics see as the country’s most inflationary budget in recent years on June 12, is due to wind up the debate on Friday.
He will have to respond to opposition criticism, whose main target has been an increase of the GST, charged on almost everything except raw food and medicines, to 17 per cent from 16pc and its collection before the passage of the budget.
It will also be on Friday that a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is to issue a promised ruling on whether the government was right in taking the unusual step of ordering the GST collection at the new rate before the start of the next financial year on July 1 on the force of a 1931 law used in the finance bill.
And as lawmakers in the house and people in the galleries speculated about the court ruling on the issue that it took up on its own initiative, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) president Makhdoom Javed Hashmi demanded that the government withdraw the budget altogether to save ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N from possible public wrath. A similar step had been taken in 1986 by then prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo of PML-N’s predecessor, then known as Pakistan Muslim League and backed by military president Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq.
“There is no other way,” said Mr Hashmi, who had left the PML-N as a senior vice-president and resigned from the National Assembly in December 2011 to join Imran Khan’s PTI.
And he blamed what he called a “hastily prepared budget” for lowering the PML-N’s prestige in public eye, saying that while it took five years for the previously ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Mr Dar had “brought the PML-N to that pass in 15 days”.
The finance minister was present at his desk at the time, counting rosary beads or talking to party colleagues while Mr Hashmi lambasted him for what he saw as anti-poor and pro-rich budget and for going to the International Monetary Fund with the “begging bowl” that the PML-N once said it had broken.
Another major opposition attack on the budget came from PPP lawmaker Nafisa Shah, who used the occasion to bemoan, as one reason for the PPP’s defeat in the May 11 elections, what she called “an election commission of militants” -- besides one headed by Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim. She said the militants had threatened not to let the PPP and two other liberal parties to hold rallies, while spared others like the election-winning PML-N.
The mood in the house and the Supreme Court promise of a ruling on Friday sparked speculation whether the government would revise its budget proposals or whether it would accept any of non-binding recommendations to be sent by the opposition-dominated Senate.
The opposition leader in the National Assembly, PPP’s Khursheed Ahmed Shah, had suggested to the government in remarks on Wednesday to “make a start with the budget” after Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said there should be a “common agenda” for improving the country’s economy as well as on other important issues.
A member of the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Sajid Ahmed, provoked some protest shouts when he ended his criticism of the budget with a sentimental outburst about the reported killings of MQM followers in Karachi saying “your stomach it still not satiated by blood” and, in an apparent reference to the partition of the sub-continent, adding: “We have broken India ….”
It was apparently in response to that remark that Mr Hashmi said in his speech later that “those seeking to break up Pakistan will die” and that “nobody can break up Pakistan”.
About 40 members of the house spoke on the budget in two sittings of the day before it was adjourned until 10.30am on Friday.