ISLAMABAD: A mercurial Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was on the warpath in parliament on Wednesday but the government seemed little worried by a key ally’s boycott of the National Assembly over increased petroleum prices.
Chanting slogans for a withdrawal of up to nine per cent increases in the domestic oil prices from Monday, members of the MQM stormed out of the National Assembly in the presence of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, one of them declaring they would not return until their demand was met.
It was the second protest over the issue in as many days by the MQM, part of the 2-1/2-year-old PPP-led governments at the centre and in Sindh province. The party had staged a token walkout from the National Assembly on Tuesday, as they did again in the Senate on Wednesday with the opposition.
But the announcement of a boycott of the lower house by MQM member Wasim Akhtar, who spoke for the 25-seat party in the absence of its parliamentary leader and Minister for Overseas Pakistanis Farooq Sattar, seemed meant to up the ante amid unabated tensions in the alliance mainly over the law and order situation in Karachi and after some latest PPP contacts with the PML-Q — the second largest opposition party after the PML-N — for cooperation, which could shield the government against any threatening consequences of an angry ally’s departure.
According to reports reaching here from London, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who has played the role of a trouble-shooter between the two allies, met MQM chief Altaf Hussain and later announced that all problems had been sorted out. However, MQM legislators in the capital and its members of the Sindh Assembly did not endorse his claim.
Unlike Tuesday, when two government ministers persuaded the protesting MQM members to return to the house on the order of Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi, no such effort was made on Wednesday, when a leading PML-Q member, Amir Muqam, asked the protesters to decide whether they would be in the government or in the opposition and taunted about what he saw as their habit to “make a hue and cry on one day and meet President Zardari the next day” (to make a compromise with him).
However, Prime Minister Gilani, without directly referring to MQM’s behaviour, agreed with PML-N chief whip Sheikh Aftab Ahmad for meaningful debates on important issues like the price hike if members sought them through proper motions as provided by rules rather than expecting satisfactory answers from government ministers to off-the-cuff complaints raised through points of order.
Subsequently, four opposition adjournment motions were admitted for a debate on the new petroleum prices announced by the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) on Sunday as well as the general price hike for which the deputy speaker said time would be fixed later.
And despite some heated arguments over a government bill for an amendment in the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority Ordinance of 2002, which was passed over opposition objections, atmosphere in the house remained cordial between the treasury and opposition benches after a spell of anger on Tuesday when the prime minister had dismissed some PML-N members’ hostile talk for mid-term elections as a way to remove the present government.
The chair ordered a physical count of votes — after PML-N’s Zahid Hamid refused to accept a presumed majority of “ayes’’ in the voice voting held thrice — that gave the government 75 votes to opposition’s 55 to pass the bill after some hectic moments from both the sides to bring in their members thought to be loitering in the lobbies or busy elsewhere.
The bill, piloted by the prime minister’s political affairs adviser Nawabzada Ghazanfar Gul, adds “public administration or management” to the qualifications for an Ogra chairman who, as provided by the original law, must also be “an eminent professional of known integrity and competence with a minimum of twenty years of related experience in law, business, engineering, finance, accounting, economics (and) petroleum technology”.
In an apparent gesture to the opposition, two other government bills — one seeking to set up a National Vocational and Technical Education Commission and the other for the establishment of a National Defence University in Islamabad — were deferred for more consultations with the other side on requests from Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan and Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar respectively before the house was adjourned until 10am on Thursday.
Earlier, Mr Awan introduced a bill in the house to further amend the Islamabad Rent Restriction Ordinance, 2001.