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PML-N, PTI leading charge for mly courts

Updated March 19, 2017

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are leading the charge to ensure the passage of the 23rd amendment — seeking the revival of the military courts — which the government plans to present before both houses of parliament next week.

In background discussions, leaders of almost all major political parties revealed that so far only the PML-N and PTI had taken practical steps to ensuring the maximum presence of their members in the National Assembly and Senate when the government presents the bill for passage, as per the understanding reached between all parties last week.

Other parties, despite agreeing on the proposal to extend the term of the military courts for another two years, do not appear so enthusiastic about the exercise.

Both parties scrambling to ensure maximum attendance for passage of constitutional amendment; Rabbani may abstain in protest

After a series of exhaustive meetings, the government and the opposition on Thursday finally agreed to revive the military courts for a two-year period after the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had been opposing the government draft, withdrew two of its main proposals, paving the way for an across-the-board consensus.

Now, the government is expected to table two bills — the 23rd Constitution Amendment and a fresh amendment to the Pakistan Army Act — in the National Assembly on Monday (tomorrow) and in the Senate on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already convened a meeting of the PML-N’s parliamentary committee on Monday in an effort to ensure the presence of maximum number of party members to ensure the smooth passage of the constitutional amendment bill, since a minimum of two-thirds of all members in both houses are required to vote on it.

Though the prime minister’s spokesperson announced that the meeting had been called “to discuss important national issues and party affairs”, sources in the PML-N said the main purpose of the exercise was to ensure the presence of members in the house. They said party lawmakers were being directed to attend the meeting, which would be chaired by the prime minister, who rarely graces the parliament with his presence.

Similarly, PTI parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Dawn that he had already “requested” all party legislators to ensure their presence in both houses of parliament to ensure the smooth passage of the constitutional amendment.

Mr Qureshi said he had sent SMS messages to all party legislators, requesting them to compulsorily attend the sittings as the party had reached a consensus on the issue of the military courts, considering it a “national issue”.

Sources in the PTI said the participation of chairman Imran Khan in the National Assembly session on the day was still “doubtful”.

On the other hand, a senior PPP office-bearer and senator said its leadership had not issued any directive to party legislators so far, adding that PPP members would be voting for the bill with “heavy hearts”.

Similarly, when contacted, a senior leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) said that party legislators had so far not been asked to ensure their presence in parliament.

Senate chairman

Sources said that Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani might not preside over the sitting of the upper house when the bill would be presented for its passage, as a mark of protest.

During Senate proceedings on Friday, Mr Rabbani termed the accord reached between political parties on the revival of military courts “unfortunate” and feared that the extension might go beyond 2019.

Mr Rabbani observed that two bills pertaining to military courts had been passed in 2015, yet two years later, the country found itself back to square one.

Mr Rabbani is a strong opponent of military courts and was moved to tears after voting as a senator on the 21st Constitutional Amendment that set up military courts in the country in January 2015. At that time, he had stated that he had voted against his own conscience, adding that he had never felt more ashamed in his life.

“I have been in the Senate for more than 12 years, but have never been as ashamed as I am today and I cast my vote against my conscience,” he said at the time.

The government also fears that Mr Rabbani, who is known for taking unusual steps on key occasions, may skip the sitting on the fateful day. This was evident from the fact that soon after the chair’s observation on Friday, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar hoped that Mr Rabbani would not be absent the day the house legislated on the revival of military courts.

Party position

In the 342-member National Assembly, the support of 228 legislators is required to get a constitutional amendment bill passed. In the Senate, where the government is in a minority, the endorsement of 70 senators is required in the 104-member house.

The ruling party may not have any difficulties getting the bill passed from the NA, but it will be a tough ask for it to have it passed from the Senate.

In the NA, the PML-N has 188 MNAs, followed by PPP’s 47 of the PPP, PTI’s 33 and MQM’s 24. All these parties combined have the required strength to ensure the bill’s passage.

But in the Senate, the maximum attendance of PPP, MQM, and other parties’ members is a must. The PML-N has 26 senators, whereas the PTI only has seven. Therefore, the support of the PPP’s 27 senators and the MQM’s eight lawmakers, besides other smaller groups, is seen as being vital for the government.

Sources said that some five senators were either out of the country or seriously ill, and their participation in next week’s proceedings seemed doubtful.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2017