ISLAMABAD, Feb 14: Lack of quorum -- a bane of the present parliament -- blocked a key law reforms bill in the National Assembly on Wednesday despite somewhat improved attendance on government benches and a bolstered opposition after an about-face return of religious parties from an eight-day boycott.
Not a single day passed without the 342-seat assembly lacking the required quorum of its one-fourth, or 86 members, since the present session began on Feb 6, and the latest problem appeared when the house was in the midst of the second reading of the government's Law Reforms Bill that seeks substantive and procedural amendments to several existing laws.
Four headcounts and the ringing of bells to call members from the lobbies failed to show enough strength, forcing Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain to adjourn the house until 9am on Thursday.
The fate of the debate on the bill seemed uncertain from its start after all present members of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) walked out to keep up their protest against a women's rights bill passed by the parliament in November, only two hours after they came back by reneging a `holy vow’ to resign from all their 64 seats in the house.
The other and main opposition bloc led by the People's Party Parliamentarians (PPP) remained in the house, apparently ready to participate in the day's legislative business, but most PPP members too later slipped out after two of them complained that amendment proposed by them had been upstaged by those of Law and Justice Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar when ruling Pakistan Muslim League's member M.P. Bhandara was presiding over the sitting.
A last-minute offer by Speaker Hussain to rectify the complaint if PPP members could come back to let the house proceed with its business proved too late and the last count, despite hectic efforts by ministers and the ruling party whip to improve the situation, showed only 84 members present, two less than the required quorum.
Members of the PPP-led Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) staged a token walkout earlier to protest against what they called an inhuman treatment of some jailed opposition politicians of Balochistan, including former chief minister Akhtar Mengal and former MNA Abdul Rauf Mengal, and some of them later told at a news conference that the ARD would hold protests in Punjab to demonstrate solidarity with the Baloch leaders.
MMA members, whose return was greeted with welcoming remarks -- though some being sarcastic -- from both the treasury and opposition benches, did not join that walkout, to be paid back in the same coin when they staged their walkout after the Speaker rejected their demand that he sent the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act to the Council of Islamic Ideology for its opinion, saying that this stage had passed and that they could now go to the Federal Shariat Court or the Supreme Court.
The MMA had threatened late last year to resign from the National Assembly to protest against the passage of that Act, which is aimed to protect women from the misuse of two controversial Islamic Hudood Ordinances about rape enforced in 1979 by then military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq but is seen by the religious parties as un-Islamic.
A meeting of the alliance's top leadership on Tuesday decided to cancel the resignation threat but vowed to continue protests against the new law.
Some senior MMA leaders, including opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and alliance president Qazi Hussain Ahmed, were absent from the house, in an apparent move to avoid being embarrassed by any taunts from critics in the ruling coalition.
But Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Niazi, who often has angry exchanges with the opposition, was unusually kind to the MMA this time when he said he was happy on "MMA's return" and added that he hoped "we will remain together" during this last year of the present National Assembly.
But a barbed compliment came from Ports and Shipping Minister Babar Khan Ghauri of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement who advised the MMA to give up its repeated talk against President Pervez Musharraf and the United States and, in what seemed to be a reference to the last October 2002 elections, said: "If Musharraf had not been there, you also would not have been here."PPP secretary-general Raja Pervez Ashraf, while welcoming the MMA despite his party's difference with the religious parties over the Protection of Women Act that it supported, said a military rule negated democracy, telling the treasury benches that the presence of a general at the helm of affairs "could be your compulsion but not of the nation".
MMA's most senior member present in the house, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, said his alliance would continue protesting against what he called an "unconstitutional, un-Islamic and immoral bill" and accused the government and General Musharraf of distorting the constitution through a simple parliamentary majority.
"It is our duty to tell all these things to the nation," the member said, provoking a witty remark from the chair: "It is good that you told this (to us)". The Speaker also advised the alliance members not to issue fatwas against laws passed by the assembly.
Law Minister Zafar also tinged his welcoming remarks with a rejection of the MMA's argument that November's bill was un-Islamic, immoral and unconstitutional.