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In passing budget, NA gives Gilani new armour

ISLAMABAD, June 14: In passing the new budget and a key resolution on Thursday, the National Assembly gave Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani a new politico-legal armour against his foes shouting for him to “go”.

The vote on the fifth and last budget of the PPP-led government, amid loud protest-shouting by the lawmakers of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, was politically seen as a vote of confidence for the prime minister’s coalition for the remainder of its term until March.

And the government-moved resolution, which the house adopted immediately after passing the budget for fiscal 2012-13 and just before being prorogued after a 14-day session, endorsed a ruling given by Speaker Fehmida Mirza last month that absolved the prime minister of attracting the mischief of disqualification because of his conviction for contempt of court by a Supreme Court bench.

The endorsement came the day another Supreme Court bench began hearing an opposition challenge to the May 24 ruling the speaker had issued from her chamber when the house was not in session, which the resolution declared a part of parliament’s proceedings that “cannot be questioned”.

The three-paragraph draft, read out by Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Farooq H. Naek, with special permission from Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi as one concerning an `urgent’ matter, described the speaker’s office as “the symbol of the nation’s freedom and dignity” and said the May 24 ruling “upholds the constitution and respects the mandate of the electorate” and was “within the ambit and scope of the functions and powers conferred upon the speaker by the constitution”.

“The house further resolves that the aforesaid ruling having been given by the speaker of the house is a part of the proceedings of the Majlis-i-Shoora (parliament) and, therefore, cannot be questioned,” it said.

Political sources said that while the vote on the budget by members of the ruling coalition, supported by more than two-thirds of 342-seat lower house, would serve Mr Gilani well to counter PML-N demands for his resignation while less than 10 months are left to run out his five-year term, the resolution would provide an additional legal shield for the speaker’s ruling in the challenge before the Supreme Court by a PML-N lawmaker.

Mr Gilani, who becomes the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to present all the five budgets of a prime ministerial tenure, did not come to the house to celebrate his unique honour, probably to avoid being greeted with “go Gilani, go Gilani” chants from the 92-seat PML-N, which questions his legitimacy as prime minister after the April 26 contempt of court conviction and a symbolic punishment of “imprisonment till the rising of the court”.

But the prime minister says he has not been disqualified by the court and his conviction -- for not writing to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed money-laundering charges against President Asif Ali Zardari on grounds of a presidential immunity – did not involve any offence of moral turpitude.

As on most other days of the budget session, about 40 PML-N lawmakers held intermittent sessions of slogan-chanting on Thursday by forming a crowd between the steps of the dais and front benches from the start of the sitting while the government did a quick work of voting on demands for grants because no cut motions necessitating a discussion was moved either by the members of the protesting PML-N, which had boycotted the process, or of the smaller opposition parties and groups which had not joined the protest.

It was the first time in Pakistan’s parliamentary history that no cut motions were moved.

Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who unveiled the Rs3.2 trillion budget without imposing new taxes on June 1, and four other cabinet colleagues took turns reading out the demands for grants – 151 for the new budget, 109 supplementary demands for the outgoing fiscal 2011-12, and 193 excess demands for fiscal 1989-90, 1991-92 and 2005-06 – before separate voice vote on each of them.

The protest chants grew louder whenever the finance minister took up the task, with protesters also throwing torn papers towards the treasury benches, especially when the Finance Bill, 2012, which will give effect to the new budget from July 1, came up for vote with seven amendments proposed by him, some of them to incorporate some of the 145 non-binding recommendations made by the Senate (reported separately).

A senior female PML-N lawmaker, Tehmina Daultana, threw glass bangles at Defence Minister Naveed Qamar when he was presenting demands for grants for the voting, and later threw something at the finance minister as well.

The general debate on the budget, which remained boycotted by PML-N except a long opening speech by the party’s deputy secretary-general, Ahsan Iqbal, and another tirade late from a party member from Balochistan, Lt-Gen (Retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, concluded on Wednesday with assurance by the finance minister to accommodate a “substantial portion” from the Senate recommendations when a debate on non-votable charged expenditure was cut short by protest shouting.

No debate on the charged expenditure either of the new budget or of the supplementary demands was held.

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