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ISLAMABAD: It is not every day that the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly has to defend himself against attacks from treasury backbenchers.

But on Wednesday, when Syed Khurshid Shah pointed out the ruling party’s unwillingness to let his party’s local governments function in the Punjab district of Rahim Yar Khan, not one but two Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz backbenchers jumped to their party’s defence.

The argument began when the leader of the opposition — who enjoys the privilege of being ceded the floor whenever he rises in his seat — turned his sights on the government, criticising it for being insecure of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s sole district committee win in the province of Punjab.

“If the government thinks that the PML-N is the only political party in Pakistan and cannot tolerate our existence, they should let us know,” he said, reminding the government that when doubts were cast on the transparency and fairness of the 2013 elections, the PPP never disputed its outcome and accepted the PML-N as the government of the day.

Shah claims PML-N not willing to accept PPP-led district committee in Rahim Yar Khan

“A district government election was held in Rahim Yar Khan — a district of 6.5 million people. This is but one district out of the many [in Punjab] that was won by the PPP, but [the PML-N] cannot digest this.”

“The election was held on Dec 5 and on Dec 8,” he recalled, “The media showed all 72 members who had won on the ‘arrow’ symbol. The PPP had a five vote lead, but six members were pressurised into resigning. One of them, fortunately, came back”.

“Once again, the PPP won 70-75pc of seats in the elections to special seats. But the [PML-N] is trying to divide our ranks.”

“In Lalamusa, where the PPP won the town committee, they are after us again. This is a district council where the PTI and PML-N joined forces against us but still lost,” he continued.

“If the PPP has — fortunately or unfortunately — won a district committee election and you are not prepared to accept it, how will things move forward? How can we trust any future elections? How can we uphold democracy?”

The opposition leader was visibly fuming. “You are making things difficult for yourself over just one district. We have not suffered for the cause of democracy and stood by you in your darkest hour just so that you can do such things,” he concluded.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, Deputy Speaker Murtaza Abbasi asked Sheikh Aftab and the ministers present in the house to convey this message to the prime minister.

But even as he passed these directions, Sheikh Fayyazuddin — the PML-N MNA from NA-193 (Rahim Yar Khan-II) — rose in his seat to dispute the opposition leader’s claims.

“We hold the honourable leader of the opposition in very high regard, but some of the things he has said are not accurate at all. If 72 people have won the elections on a PPP ticket [in Rahim Yar Khan], kindly accept my resignation,” he exclaimed, tongue-in-cheek, in his signature style.

“Mr Shah has been given incorrect information,” he said, adding that he was prepared to resign if it was proven that 72 members were presented before the media in that district.

“The truth is that 63 people won the elections on a PPP ticket, while the PML-N has 71. I would like to correct the record; we have a majority.”

Taking issue with the allegation that PPP members were pressured to resign, he claimed that if this was true, he would also join them and resign from the house.

While the PML-N MNA was speaking, Mr Shah motioned to Makhdoom Mustafa Mehmood — the MNA from NA-195 (Rahim Yar Khan-IV) and son of former Punjab governor Makh­doom Ahmed Mehmood — who hurried over to the front row.

The two men conversed while Sheikh Fayyaz was still speaking, and from their body language it appeared as if the opposition leader had got his numbers mixed up.

Talking to Dawn after the session, Mr Mehmood admitted that the opposition leader had muddled up his figures. He explained that when the elections were held, the PPP had the majority with 63 members against PML-N’s 42. He claimed that eight people joined the PPP after the election, but the ruling party had tried its best to pressure several of their members to resign.

As soon as the PML-N backbencher was done speaking, Mr Shah rose in his seat again.

“If the criteria is who contested the election on which ticket, then PML-N can’t be said to have won most of its seats in the province. Nearly 50pc of their strength comes from independents who joined their ranks after the election,” Mr Shah countered.

“In fact, most of the local bodies elections were won by independents and around 80pc of them joined the PML-N afterwards,” he contended.

But the PML-N was not done. Immediately after Mr Shah, the deputy speaker recognised Gujrat MNA Chaud­hry Jaffer Iqbal, who minced no words. “Local body elections were held from Attock to Rahim Yar Khan, but the opposition leader could only point to Lalamusa or Rahim Yar Khan.” The implication was obvious.

“In Gujrat (where Lalamusa is located) there are 114 UCs and not a single PPP chairman won there. If any PPP councillors or leaders in Lalamusa are in danger or have any apprehensions, I will personally protect them,” he concluded.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2016