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Presidential parliamentarians

August 12, 2017

APPARENTLY preferring the advice of hardliners to that of the appeasement advocates in the senior ranks of his PML-N, disqualified prime minister Nawaz Sharif has set off on a road march to his estate near Lahore from Islamabad where he occupied the seat of power in a rocky and turbulent four-year tenure brought to an end by the country’s Supreme Court.

Mr Sharif’s last such journey was in the opposite direction from Lahore to Islamabad when he was marching to force the then PPP government’s hand to restore what he called the independent judiciary headed by the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

He had reached Gujranwala, amid fears that if his ‘long march’ reached the capital it might trigger clashes with government forces, when the former prime minister is said to have a received a phone call from the army chief telling him to call off his protest as the government had ceded to his demand.

The only time Nawaz Sharif gave any importance to the forum to which he owed his office was when he was in trouble.

A triumphant Nawaz Sharif claimed victory and ended his protest as the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced in an address to parliament in Islamabad that the deposed chief justice had been restored to office.

Later, that independent judiciary was to send that very elected prime minister who restored it packing in a contempt-of-court case backed by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who’d also approached the Supreme Court to have the book thrown at the PPP government after the dubious ‘memogate’ controversy.

But after he had his third tenure cut short by the independent judiciary he helped put in place, Nawaz Sharif cried foul. He says he has become ‘ideological’, even though he wasn’t so at the start of his political life. If this was an oblique and obscure way to reach out to the PPP that he needs on board if any constitutional amendment is to be pushed through parliament, it wasn’t clear.

The PPP’s response came at various levels. While party leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari continued to attack the PML-N leader for his alleged mismanagement and corruption and advised him to go home, party stalwarts in the Senate seemed to have other ideas.

In a move initiated by Senate chairman Raza Rabbani and endorsed by many senators, the Senate is calling for a dialogue between parliament, the judiciary and military as there seems no other way to ensure the supremacy of parliament.

Mr Rabbani said he’d call upon the prime minister to invite the army chief to such a dialogue as the COAS reported to the chief executive and only he had the authority to extend such an invitation whereas the chief justice of the Supreme Court could be invited directly.

Given the friction and power tussles — for nearly the entire life of the country — between the various pillars of state, it seems like a good idea. But once, and if, they sit down to talk what discussion can they have beyond what is laid down in the Constitution?

All the three parties to the dialogue that is being visualised are certain to have read the Constitution and what it lays down in terms of the responsibilities and duty of each, as well as the constraints it places on them in terms of their authority.

Can or will a dialogue across the table resolve that which the 1973 Constitution laid down but that could not be implemented? Is each pillar of state prepared to come to the negotiating table with an open mind to concede some of the authority and powers they wield currently and, in fact, have wielded historically?

I have my serious doubts. We won’t get so far as to discussing how the army and the judiciary have been found wanting when we look at the role of our elected chief executives who are handed over the reins of the country because they command a majority in the directly elected house of parliament.

We need not go far into the past and can look at just the last four years. The only time Mr Sharif gave any importance to the forum to which he owed his office was when he was in trouble, whether it was the PTI dharna at the start of his tenure or more recently when the Panama Papers controversy engulfed him.

To be fair, it was not just the former prime minister but also one of the main opposition leaders, Imran Khan, who has preferred a presidential way of doing things and ignored parliament and its legislative committees as that committed democrats would never do in a parliamentary democracy.

The attendance record of both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan is an eloquent commentary on just how much esteem they hold parliament in. Where the former’s parliamentary interest is need-driven, it isn’t clear what may attract the latter to the house. His own nominee Shaikh Rashid’s presidential election did not hold sufficient pull to bring him in to cast his vote.

Also, a Nawaz Sharif who has taken to the streets to try to mobilise public support and hold his party together when there are indications of a serious rift between the hardliners and those counselling a softly, softly approach can hardly contribute much to the proposed debate unless he sees the very unlikely possibility of judicial relief for him via such a route.

Against the backdrop of confusion, not least because of rumour mills and conspiracy theorists working overtime to throw up the most bizarre of scenarios, the only positive aspect has been how Shahid Khaqan Abbasi seems to be taking charge and getting on with it.

Perhaps, more than Nawaz Sharif’s mass mobilisation campaign, it will be the government’s performance in its final 10 months in office that will dictate the fate of the PML-N in the 2018 elections.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2017