ISLAMABAD, June 4: In a significant climb-down, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) on Monday resumed its participation in parliament’s proceedings by opening the budget debate in both houses with sharp attacks on government policies and performance of more than four years.
But in an apparent move of damage-control after more than a month of standoff, the PML-N’s main speaker in the National Assembly reiterated the party’s demand that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani resign because of his conviction by the Supreme Court for contempt of court.
The country’s largest opposition party had refused to take part in parliament’s proceedings after the April 26 conviction, which it said had deprived Mr Gilani of legitimacy as prime minister, though its lawmakers had been attending the two houses since then only to stage noisy protests in the National Assembly and walkouts in the Senate.
Even on Friday, the presentation of the budget for fiscal 2012-13 by Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh in the National Assembly was marked by noisy PML-N protests and scuffles while the PML-N senators walked out of the upper house when he laid budget documents there later.
In the National Assembly, the PML-N about-face on Monday also broke a parliamentary tradition when the party’s comparatively moderate deputy secretary-general, Ahsan Iqbal, opened the budget debate instead of hard-line opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali, who stayed out of the evening sitting, though he came to his office in the parliament house and had a defiant chat with reporters.
It was at the fag-end of his about 2-1/2-hour speech that Mr Iqbal called for Mr Gilani’s replacement by someone else from the Pakistan People’s Party-led ruling coalition to end what he called a damaging confrontation, before leading a walkout by slogan-chanting party colleagues.
But the PML-N Senator Ishaq Dar, who opened the debate in the upper house shortly before Mr Iqbal did in the other house, made no such demand in his long speech.
Mr Iqbal painted a dismal picture of the performance of the coalition government, of which the PML-N had been part for 1-1/2 months after its formation in March 2008, and asked members of the house not to give it a new vote of confidence by passing the new budget.
He said the government’s policies had harmed the country not only economically but also politically and that it would bequeath a much worse situation for the next government than what it inherited from the previous Musharraf government.
PML-N lawmakers, particularly those on the back-benches, frequently chanted “shame, shame” when Mr Iqbal referred to perceived government failures like one in the energy sector and or cited alleged non-implementation of promises made by the prime minister on taking office.He said the April 26 conviction by a seven-judge Supreme Court bench, which handed a symbolic “imprisonment till the rising of the court” sentence to the prime minister, had made Mr Gilani’s position controversial and demanded that he resign “in the interest of the country” to make way for another coalition nominee before a caretaker government conducts the next elections as soon as possible.
The prime minister, who did not come to parliament because of his visit to Balochistan, has already been cleared by National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza of any ground for his disqualification as a consequence of the sentence for not writing to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed longstanding money-laundering charges against President Asif Ali Zardari on grounds of a presidential immunity.
The PML-N and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf have already gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the speaker’s ruling.
Chaudhry Nisar told reporters that he did not open the debate in line with a decision of his party, which he said would continue protesting without disturbing the budget debate.
However, he said the protest would be more severe when the prime minister comes to the house and when the budget is passed.
FINANCE MINISTER’S DENAIL
After the PML-N walkout, the finance minister made a statement in the house rejecting what he called reports broadcast by some private television channels accusing him of having dual nationality.
He said he had never applied for the citizenship of any foreign country and added: “I was born a Pakistani … and will die as a Pakistani.”
On a government move, the house passed a resolution calling for the extension of the Drug Regularity Authority Ordinance for 130 days beyond its imminent expiry a day later before it was adjourned until 5pm on Tuesday.