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DAWN - Features; 27 May, 2004

May 27, 2004

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Ruling party celebrates 'death' of joint opposition

By Ashraf Mumtaz

LAHORE, May 26: The legality of the agreement under which the Sharifs were banished to Saudi Arabia in December 2000 and deportation of Mian Shahbaz Sharif only two weeks ago when he flew into the city came under discussion on the first day of the pre-budget Punjab Assembly session on Wednesday.

Though present in large numbers, the PPP legislators remained silent spectators, leaving it to the PML-N and the ruling party to mutually settle the matter.

It is hard to believe that the PPP, which had participated in the May 15 protest with the PML-N, had kept quiet considering that their indifference would make no difference. It might be a well thought-out strategy not to take up the cudgels with its ally in the ARD.

The Wednesday session also provided the treasury an opportunity to celebrate the death of what was once called the joint opposition. The Alliance for Restoration of Democracy and the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal legislators were criticizing each other on the issue of Maulana Fazlur Rehman's appointment as opposition leader in the National Assembly.

And the ruling party brains were thinking of some new moves which would widen the cleavage between the two opposition alliances, which worked together till the binding force between them -- Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan -- passed away in September last year.

Interestingly, views on the (in)validity of the banishment accord and the legitimacy of the new opposition leader in the lower house of parliament were expressed for about two hours without their being part of the formal agenda. Speaker Afzal Sahi gave opposition MPs full opportunity to give a vent to their anger -- and let the nation see how disunited they were.

As the session commenced, opposition leader Qasim Zia proposed that the rules should be suspended to discuss the law and order situation before any other item on the agenda.

Law Minister Raja Basharat said he could express his views even without the suspension of the rules. This provided an opportunity to Faisalabad's Rana Sanaullah Khan to say that those who were adept at holding the Constitution in abeyance should have no hesitation to suspend the rules.

A lawyer by profession, an eloquent Rana said it was absurd to say that the Sharifs had left the country after signing an agreement. He said there was no agreement and if there was any, it was violative of Article 15 of the Constitution and thus totally invalid.

Rana said under the law, a person in custody was not authorized to make any agreement or sell even his own property without following a procedure laid down for the purpose. He implied that the procedure had not been followed and thus whatever the government claimed the Sharifs had signed was of little legal value.

He also pointed out discrepancies and contradictions in the statements of the prime minister, the ruling party chief and other leaders on the subject. He ridiculed the Punjab chief minister's statement a day before Shahbaz Sharif's landing in Lahore that the PML-N president would not come and his utterances were nothing more than an attempt to keep him in news.

Then he targeted his guns at Arshad Khan Lodhi, the agriculture minister, for claims that the Sharifs would not return to Pakistan before the expiry of the agreement period.

Making an obvious reference to Mr Lodhi's intimacy with the Sharifs before joining hands with the PML-Q, Rana said the minister for agriculture would again be with the Sharifs on their return home.

The entire house burst into a laughter as Rana said that he would drive Mr Lodhi back to the residence of the Punjab chief minister. Law Minister Raja Basharat blunted Rana Sanaullah's attack, saying it was Mian Nawaz Sharif who had signed the agreement because of which the entire Sharif family was sitting out of the country.

The deposed prime minister, he said, had been convicted of plane hijacking after which he was left with only two legal options to get free: file an appeal or get bail. He exercised neither and signed a petition for pardon.

The minister from Rawalpindi argued that no member of the Sharif family, including Mian Shahbaz, had made any statement since the deportation of the former chief minister. "This is because of the restriction imposed on them by the agreement".

He said the guns of the Sharifs spokesman had also fallen silent, which was another proof that the accord was there. Had there been no agreement, the law minister said, Mian Shahbaz would not have been issued a Saudi visa at Lahore airport. Passports of the Sharif family had been taken away by the Saudi government.

He was of the view that the Sharifs had long term plans to stay in the kingdom and it was for this reason that they had set up a steel mills there and were also making arrangements for the marriages of their children.

PPP's Qasim Zia was angry on the appointment of MMA's Maulana Fazlur Rehman as opposition leader, saying no rule could substantiate his placement in the coveted slot.

He said parties in the MMA had apologized after extending cooperation to Gen Zia and they would have to do the same for their cooperation with Gen Musharraf.Young Qasim, who has reached the assembly for the first time, said in NWFP where the MMA was in power an independent legislator had been appointed opposition leader without any right.

Now it was between the PPP and the MMA, with the PML-N as a silent viewer. The PPP should have shown its strength in the National Assembly before claiming a right to the opposition leader's slot, said MMA's Asghar Ali Gujjar. He said the MMA was having to confront the government as well as opposition parties.

MMA's Ehsanullah Waqas said the religious alliance had not appointed a PPP leader as opposition leader in the NWFP because PPP legislators were changing loyalties and even the opposition leader could have become a turncoat.

The member from Lahore alleged that Mr Jamali had formed the government because of the wrong policies of the PPP. He said it was strange that a PPP turncoat was senior minister in the federal cabinet and still the PPP wanted to get the office of the opposition leader.