Belated NA session faces urgent business

Published January 27, 2014
Lawmakers and galleries will also be anxious to see if the prime minister too comes to the house, which he has not attended since the June budget session.  — File Photo
Lawmakers and galleries will also be anxious to see if the prime minister too comes to the house, which he has not attended since the June budget session. — File Photo

ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly begins its first session of the new year on Monday rather late and will confront some urgent business amid an unusual legislative deadlock it has faced in eight months of its life.

An earlier schedule for the house to meet on Jan 20 was changed for unexplained reasons while so much happened in the country this month, like deadly terrorist attacks on both civilians and soldiers, but would not prompt Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s eight-month-old government to seek an early counsel from lawmakers forming the country’s highest forum.

These incidents, such as the killings of paramilitary personnel in Bannu and Rawalpindi, the massacre of Shia pilgrims returning from Iran at Mastung in Balochistan and deadly attacks on polio vaccination teams in Karachi and Peshawar, are likely to ring out loudly in the lower house.

Somewhat subdued debate was held in the Senate earlier this month following the Jan 19 attack in Bannu, which killed about 20 paramilitary Frontier Corps troops, and the one in Rawalpindi Cantonment the next day, which took the lives of seven army soldiers and as many civilians, when some of the national outrage was assuaged by immediate retaliatory air strikes at suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan tribal area that killed about 40 people.

While a mandate given to the government by a Sept 9 all-party conference to initiate dialogue with the militants was virtually wasted, or spurned by the main Taliban group — the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan which claimed responsibility for both the Bannu and Rawalpindi attacks — there will likely be fresh calls for a military response to those who challenge the state.

The main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party has submitted separate adjournment motions for a discussion on these and some later attacks, including the Jan 21 suicide car bomb attack that killed 24 people in a Shia pilgrims’ bus.

But a debate on these issues can be fixed only after the PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) decide to end their boycott of the house begun in the last session over Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s refusal to withdraw what they thought was an objectionable word — ‘tamasha’ (fun) — he used in describing a PTI campaign for a verification of thumb impressions of voters in some of the PTI-lost constituencies in Punjab.

The opposition must take a decision about ending or continuing their boycott before the session starts at 4pm, while the prime minister has also called a meeting of the parliamentary party of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N at his office to possibly chart out its role to counter or accommodate opposition views on ways to fight terrorism as well as on a new presidential decree — the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO) — giving some controversial powers to law-enforcement agencies in dealing with suspects.

Except for the budget for fiscal year 2013-14 it passed in June, the house is yet to pass a bill in eight months of its existence, and the PPO — already approved by a house standing committee — and an amending ordinance issued only last week could be its first regular legislation, which can sail through the 342-seat assembly easily because of a big government majority.

But in view of reservations expressed by opposition parties — besides legal and rights groups — over powers like shooting suspects at sight and up to 90 days of detention without trial in the original ordinance and legal cover to enforced disappearances by allowing the government not to disclose grounds of detention and providing for trial in camera by special court — the new law stands little chance in the Senate where the opposition is in majority.

The PML-N and its allies being in minority in the 104-seat Senate has been the main reason for the government’s hesitation to bring new laws to date, although the government thinks the situation could change after mid-term elections for the upper house in March 2015.

While a special court trial of former military president Pervez Musharraf on treason charges, stalemated by his illness, is likely to echo in the National Assembly, lawmakers and galleries will also be anxious to see if the prime minister too comes to the house, which he has not attended since the June budget session.

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