ISLAMABAD: Amid frequent talk of an impending street challenge to his government, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday sought opposition’s cooperation in the National Assembly to solve Pakistan’s pressing problems after a scathing attack on his governance and parliamentary performance from Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
And he also agreed with the opposition leader’s call to improve discipline in the lower house that is often marred by members from both sides of the aisle swarming the prime minister’s desk for signatures on their applications, as had happened also on what was the third day of the assembly’s current session, which Chaudhry Nisar condemned as “meena bazaar” and “office functioning inside the house” at the start of his tirade against the government.
But despite his sound and fury, the opposition leader did not repeat his usual attacks on President Asif Ali Zardari although his Pakistan Muslim League-N has already launched a “go Zardari go” campaign in order to force out the present PPP-led coalition government before it completes its five-year term in March 2013.
Though describing the government as “incurable” and decrying what he called “rutt” (repeated talk) of five years”, Chaudhry Nisar did not call for early elections though he promised more intensified anti-government protests after the mourning month of Muharram, called for making the house proceedings more serious and reaffirmed oft-talked assurance that his party would not encourage or support any move by an “undemocratic and unconstitutional force” against the government.
The prime minister welcomed that assurance and, on his part, assured the house that “if there were ever any danger to parliament or democracy, we can go to any limit”.
Citing electricity and gas shortages and unprofitable public sector organisations as some of the most troubling issues of the country, Mr Gilani advised the opposition to bring them up one by one for detailed discussion in the house through proper procedure, rather than through mere points of order, and said “we will not disperse until we find a solution” of matters like the financial troubles of the Pakistan International Airlines and Railways and a huge circular debt hampering power generation by private companies.
He did not agree with the opposition leader’s perception of the performance of parliament – the PML-N leader said he never saw a more non-serious house than the present National Assembly – and cited the passage of so many bills, numerous constitutional amendments through the historic Eighteenth Amendment, and a pro-women private bill of PML-Q member Donya Aziz that got a unanimous vote in the lower house on Tuesday, as well as making military authorities “accountable” to parliament by calling them to in-camera sessions.
The prime minister acknowledged opposition’s cooperation in all this legislation and in a recently called all-party conference, and, while recalling imprisonments and exiles suffered by leaders and workers of both the PPP and PML-N at the hands of military rulers, he said: “We should rather support each other.”
But, he added, “if it is said from your side that ‘we are thinking of resigning (from the assemblies), who will take you seriously?”
Referring to the opposition leader’s complaint as to why parliament was not taken into confidence before the cabinet decided earlier this month to grant India the most-favoured nation treatment in trade while Information and Broadcasting Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said at the time that all stakeholders were on board, the prime minister welcomed what he called “a very good statement” on the issue by PML-N president Nawaz Sharif and said that would not be the case when a formal memorandum of understanding or agreement is signed, in which case, he said “we will again go to the cabinet if needed”.
‘Letter to Mullen’
Mr Gilani dismissed frequent reports in the media about a memorandum purported to have been sent on behalf of the president last May to then US chairman of joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen seeking help for a change of military leadership in Pakistan – already denied by the president, the foreign ministry and Mr Mullen – but said Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington Hussain Haqqani was soon coming to Islamabad and would explain the affair to the leadership.
“We know, and you know, about the credibility of the man,” the prime minister said about a Pakistani-American businessman who claimed delivery of the disputed document to the then US military chief.
Earlier, Speaker Fehmida Mirza withheld an opposition privilege motion about the withdrawal of security from her Karachi residence on the ground the security had been restored after the matter was brought to the notice of the president and the prime minister and Interior Minister Rehman Malik had assured a probe into the affair.
Several PML-N members and some from the ruling benches insisted that matter be referred to the house committee on privileges and Water and Power Minister Naveed Qamar said the government had no objection to that. Disagreeing with the speaker, most PML-N members present in the house staged a protest walkout – some of their colleagues did not join them – but were soon brought back to the house by Mr Qamar and PPP chief whip and Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Shah.
Mr Shah also sought a resolution to be passed by the house for the extension of the life of a key labour law – Industrial Relations Ordinance, 2008 – for 120 days more to save it from expiration by Friday so rights of what he estimated as “lakhs of workers” of nationwide organisations could be protected until provincial governments make similar laws owning the devolution of the subject of labour to provinces through the Eighteenth Amendment.
But the move was opposed by PML-N legal expert Hamid Nawaz before the two sides agreed to discuss the matter further for a possible decision on Thursday.