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NA extends session to debate Zardari’s address

Updated August 24, 2013

ISLAMABAD, Aug 23: It was after loud gripes and what the chair sought as a show of “big heart” from objectors that the National Assembly extended its current session for a week on Friday to give President Asif Ali Zardari the last hurrah before he ends his five-year term on Sept 8.

And a controversy to resolve what was seen as a unique situation — the house concluding its session without discussing the June 10 address of the president to a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament and a new president taking over on Sept 9 much before the next house session — also exposed virtually an opposition within an opposition in the 342-seat chamber.

Appearing jittery a day after their party suffered some setbacks in by-elections on Thursday, senior lawmakers of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and one of their allies went to great lengths in opposing an extension of the session as demanded by Leader of Opposition Khurshid Ahmed Shah of the PPP so the house could discuss a landmark sixth address to parliament by the president.

A government motion for the house discussion and to “express its deep gratitude” to the president for his address had been pending for several days but the debate could not begin on its turn on Wednesday and Thursday because the opposition leader, who should have opened it as a matter of tradition, was not present for being, according to him, unwell.

And its turn came on Friday — the last day of what was scheduled to be an 11-day session — just as the muezzin called for Friday prayers. The PPP leader said he was ready to open the debate in the short time available before the prayers, but it would have to be continued on Monday, opening the question of an extension of the session which had apparently been agreed during an overnight meeting between the president and the prime minister.

PTI vice-chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi jumped on the issue, saying he was surprised to learn from a strip shown on television channels on Thursday night that the session had been extended and he protested that a house business advisory committee, which had approved the schedule of the current session, which began on Aug 13, had not been consulted.

A louder protest from a PTI ally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed of the Awami Muslim League, about what he saw as matters being decided between the opposition leader and the speaker without taking other parties into confidence, seemed to upset Mr Shah who said he did talk to PTI member Shafqat Mehmood on Friday morning about the necessity of the session’s extension in view of the expiry of President Zardari’s five-year term on Sept 8 and angrily remarked: “We will fight (as opposition) not by shouting and shrieking but on issues.”

But the PTI member said Mr Shah’s interaction with him did not amount to consultation while a lawmaker of the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Abdul Rasheed Godil, too complained that his party was not consulted, though he eventually agreed to an extension.

During a heated discussion, which PTI’s senior parliamentarian and president, Javed Hashmi, called “absurd reasoning” while suggesting that the debate on the president’s address could be held even after he was out of office, Mr Shah said it was the first time the opposition was seen “running away” from a session while usually it would be the governments that would do so to avoid opposition criticism.

Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party chief Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a government ally, saw a “collective mistake” in not holding the debate until now, which he said should not be made a point of further contention.

It was after Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq took upon himself the responsibility for what he acknowledged had been a “mistake” in not consulting all parties beforehand and his appeal to “have a big heart” soothed the objectors that the controversy was resolved with the session declared extended and adjourned until 4pm on Monday.