ISLAMABAD: Though looking chastened by more than five weeks of protests for his ouster, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ruled out in parliament on Friday being “sent home” by besieging crowds, but he gave no solution to the worst political challenge to his government.
Contrary to speculations about a possible hard line against what he called continuing provocations from the two protesting parties, he recommitted his government in a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate “not to give up the path of patience and restraint”.
Not once in his 32-minute speech in Urdu did the prime minister directly mention the demand of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) for him and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to resign from their offices, though its non-acceptance has been the frequent demand of his backers during the long debate in the house.
However, he seemed to be referring just to that issue in another way when he said, rather rhetorically: “No state possessing the strong institutions of a constitution, law and justice system can allow a handful of people to send a government or prime minister home by besieging parliament.”
Resolution praises govt restraint
And he added: “We will not allow this tradition to be set that, like centuries ago, small or big lashkars continue toppling governments even today. It is after great struggle and sacrifices that we have reached this goal of the supremacy of the constitution and rule of democracy. We will not let anybody axe down democracy.”
A resolution passed by the house was much milder than expected. It appreciated the “government restraint” and only condemned some acts of the protesters like holding sit-ins in the high-security red zone of the capital, but made no demand to use security forces to remove the protesters from a portion of the Constitution Avenue outside the parliament building.
The prime minister’s long-awaited speech came at the end of an 18-day joint sitting of the two houses that had been debating the situation arising from the so-called “long march” by tens of thousands of PTI and PAT followers.
The prime minister, whose government was counselled, along with the protesters, by the army against any further use of force after some clashes in the early days of parliament’s siege when police fired teargas and rubber bullets at the protesters, said: “Restoring the sanctity of the Constitution Avenue was neither difficult yesterday nor it is difficult today.”
But he said it was out of concern for “those mothers, sisters, daughters and innocent children being used as a human shield” by the protesters that “we don’t want to abandon the path of patience and restraint we have chosen”.
Claiming that he had no lust for power – though he has taken the prime ministerial office for the third time and Punjab chief minister’s once – Mr Sharif tried to appear defiant saying that no rioting or “long march or short march can put us off from our mission”. If somebody had any doubt, it should be removed, he added.
The prime minister devoted a considerable part of his speech to reject mainly PTI allegations of massive rigging in last year’s general elections and said the government had accepted, with an “open heart”, most demands of the two protesting parties, including a PAT demand for the inclusion of his and the Punjab chief minister’s names in the list of the accused in an FIR registered by police about a June 17 police shooting in Lahore that allegedly killed at last 14 PAT followers.
He recalled a government request made to the Supreme Court chief justice to name a three-judge judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations – in addition to the formation of a 33-member parliamentary committee already formulating proposals for electoral reforms – and said if it were the issue of a probe of the rigging, “this issue has been settled”.
But he made no mention of continuing differences between the two sides over the terms of references for the probe commission. The PTI demands that the prime minister resign for at least month so he should not be able to influence the probe.
In denouncing the PTI and PAT sit-ins, the prime minister also talked of the perceived damage to Pakistan’s prestige abroad, the postponement or cancellation of the visits of at least three foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, and estimated the economic loss to the country because of the prevailing uncertainty at Rs600 billion.
RESOLUTION VOWS AND CONCERNS: In the resolution, passed unanimously – minus the boycotting PTI, some of its allies, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that walked out over another issue – the joint sitting “emphatically” reiterated what it called its “unequivocal, unwavering and unqualified resolve” to uphold the supremacy of the Constitution, the democratic system, sanctity of state institutions, the rule of law and the sovereignty of parliament.
In other points of the resolution, the house:
-Condemned ‘dharnas’ in the Islamabad red zone and “unconstitutional demands made under threat of forcible occupation of the Parliament House, the Prime Minister’s House, and other state buildings.
-Strongly condemned the forcible entry into, and occupation of the front compound the Parliament House by what it called workers of the PTI, PAT and other allied parties, an assault on the Prime Minister’s House and Pakistan Secretariat and forcible occupation of PTV (for some time).
-Noted with “great concern the incalculable damage to the nation’s economy and its international image.
-Regretted the situation had diverted attention from the plight of internally displaced persons affected by the Zarb-i-Azb military operation against militants in North Waziristan and from thousands of people hit by floods in Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and Punjab and Sindh.
-Noted the “government’s restraint, inter alia on the advice of parliamentary parties,” and its efforts to achieve a “negotiated, amicable settlement” with the protesting parties.
-Placed on record a sense of satisfaction that all democratic forces in parliament displayed “extraordinary unity and resolve to stand together to defeat the direct challenge to the supremacy of the Constitution and the sovereignty of parliament”.
-Appreciated and acknowledged with gratitude the “tremendous support” for the democratic system expressed by all sections of civil society, including the legal fraternity, the business community, technical and academic professionals and citizens across Pakistan.
MQM WALKOUT: MQM lawmakers walked out of the house just before Finance Minister Ishaq Dar moved the resolution, to protest against what their parliamentary leader in the National Assembly, Farooq Sattar, called an “unjust” PTI statement excluding Sindh from its plans for the creation of new provinces in the country and non-election of local bodies there.
He said his party would consider its next move in the light of likely response from the prime minister and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Khursheed Ahmed Shah of the PPP, which rules Sindh, to its demands for local bodies’ elections and that any future formula for the creation of new provinces out of Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa be applied also to Sindh.
While the prime minister did not mention either of the two issues as he did not digress from in his prepared speech, Mr Shah supported the demand for an early establishment of local bodies but politely dismissed the one for any new administrative unit for urban Sindh in the name of what he called 8,000 years’ history of Sindh and its “loving embrace” of other communities like the Sindh river embracing five other rivers.
“Why do you talk like this when the people of interior Sindh have shown so much love (for ethnic non-Sindhis),” he said about a passionate appeal of Mr Sattar, who had cited the huge contributions of Karachi to both federal and provincial revenues as a possible qualification to be a new unit.
Speaker Sardar Ayaz Saqiq had sent some members of the treasury benches out to try to bring the MQM lawmakers back to the house before the prime minister’s speech. But the MQM did not return until the chair read out the presidential order proroguing the joint sitting, which had been convened on Sept 2 as a parallel show of parliamentary forces against the protest sit-ins.
Published in Dawn, September 20th , 2014