ISLAMABAD: Armed with the support of his party, allies, and some argument, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani took his turn on Friday to hit back hard at his political foes, telling the National Assembly he would not cede office owing to his conviction by the Supreme Court for contempt unless the house disqualified him.
And, while seeking to drive home the argument that he incurred the contempt of court charge for “protecting the constitution”, he challenged the main opposition party demanding his resignation to bring a vote of no-confidence against him.
In his first appearance in the house since his conviction and a symbolic sentence of less than a minute’s “imprisonment till the rising of the court” passed by a seven-judge bench on Thursday, the prime minister appeared rather triumphal after assurances of support from his ruling Pakistan People’s Party and its allies, as well as demonstrations of solidarity by party supporters and a PPP candidate’s victory the same day in a by-election for a Punjab assembly seat in Multan previously held by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).
Noting that only the National Assembly Speaker was empowered by the constitution to send a reference for a house member’s disqualification to the Election Commission, he said he would submit to a decision of the house if such a question arose about him as a result of his conviction -- for not writing to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed money-laundering charges against President Asif Ali Zardari because of a constitutional immunity against prosecuting a sitting head of state.
“You de-notify me today, I will go home,” he said addressing himself to Speaker Fehmida Mirza, pointing out that she had to apply her own mind to the case rather than act as a mere post office to transmit a court order.
“I am with the people of Pakistan,” Mr Gilani said, adding: “Parliament is supreme and ultimate authority.”
What seemed as his toughest flogging of the PML-N to date was in response to the Punjab-ruling party’s demand that he resign his office before appealing against his conviction to “prove his innocence” and “go Gilani, go” chants in the house by PML-N lawmakers on Thursday, when opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan even dared the treasury benches to bring a “convicted prime minister” to his seat in the house.
“They can’t act like God,” he said about the belligerence of PML-N leaders and interpreting Chaudhry Nisar’s challenge as a threat to stop the prime minister from coming to the house and arrogating to himself the role of the house speaker.
Apparently making a fun of Sharif brothers — PML-N president Nawaz Sharif and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif — he said: “One brother (Shahbaz) says ‘I don’t accept the president’, the other (Nawaz) says ‘I don’t accept the prime minister’ while the whole N-League says ‘we don’t accept (Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf chief) Imran Khan’.” And then he said if they were so sure of their strength they better “bring a vote of no-confidence against me. I challenge them”.
“But if you want to topple the government through conspiracies from the hiding, you have seen its result in Multan,” he said in a reference to Thursday’s by-election, which also prompted a remark from the prime minister: “One court is here, and one is people’s court.”
The prime minister also said he would not allow any conspiracy to pack up the present democratic setup by inducting a government of technocrats to succeed.
Neither Chaudhry Nisar, nor many of his party’s lawmakers came to the house and some who did come quietly moved to an adjacent opposition lounge after the prime minister arrived during the question hour to a standing ovation from the treasury benches and were seen leaving through the house exit after his speech. Several other opposition members like those of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and PPP-S leader Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao stayed in the house to listen to Mr Gilani’s onslaught that was directed only against the PML-N and some of them later came to him to shake his hand.
The prime minister’s biting speech seemed reflecting tough government attitude, coming after hard-hitting speeches on the two previous days of the current session first by Information and Broadcasting Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira on Wednesday and then by Law and Justice Minister Farooq H. Naek on Thursday.
Noting that his conviction, which he intends to contest before the Supreme Court through an appeal, was not for any financial corruption or an act of moral turpitude, he said he had even received congratulations for being sentenced because “I have protected the constitution of the country” for upholding the presidential immunity. He asked the opposition lawmakers why none of them demanded repeal of the immunity article of the constitution when the present parliament passed the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth amendments and why should they object to an elected president being thrown at the mercy of a foreign magistrate and be deprived of the immunity enjoyed by all his predecessors, including military dictators, and also guaranteed by international Geneva conventions.
Mr Gilani described PML-N’s attitude as contrary to PPP’s policy of reconciliation, to which he credited the existence of the PML-N government in Punjab with the support of defectors from the now PPP-allied Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
“I know I can topple them, but I will not topple them,” he said.
He said the PML-N had left the PPP-led coalition in only a few months after its formation in 2008 because of an inherited dismal economic situation thinking the PPP government would not be able to survive and that they would win the next elections.
But he said that did not happen because of his reconciliation policy which, according to him, was something beyond the capabilities the PML-N of “big egos”.
Immediately after the prime minister’s speech, the house was adjourned until 5pm on Monday.