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ISLAMABAD: On a day they could have easily been forced to eat humble pie in the National Assembly, the government was saved from an embarrassing situation by infighting among opposition parties.

Hardly any government members graced the treasury benches when the session began on Tuesday morning, and Speaker Ayaz Sadiq made no secret of his annoyance as he rattled on, dropping or deferring agenda items where the government minister concerned was not present.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sheikh Aftab and Law Minister Zahid Hamid, who are usually quite punctual, were late to arrive. Even Islamabad MNA Tariq Fazal Chaudhry came to the house after his agenda item had passed.

But by the time Mr Sadiq got to item number 11 on the 54-point agenda, he had had enough. “Give [the ministers] a message; if they are not here in 15 minutes, I will send these bills to the standing committees.”

PPP opposes MQM-proposed land reforms bill; speaker takes exception to ministers’ absence on private members’ day

Thanks to his goodwill, two bills sponsored by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were tabled for discussion and referred to the relevant committees.

But a third law, the draft Redistributive Land Reforms Bill 2017, was met with forceful opposition from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

At first, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah tried to stall proceedings, saying he would not allow any house business to be conducted until the government showed up.

Even when MQM’s Abdul Rashid Godil demanded that his party be allowed to finish laying the bill before the house, Mr Shah remained stoic. Meanwhile, PPP whip Aijaz Jakhrani pointed out a lack of quorum, which resulted in a brief suspension of proceedings.

When the sitting resumed just over 30 minutes later with Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk in the chair, MQM’s Iqbal Qadri finally managed to lay the contentious bill before the house. But then, all hell broke loose.

Rather than allowing one of the bill’s movers to speak on the matter, the chair gave the floor to Mr Jakhrani, who made it clear that the PPP was not on board with this piece of legislation, claiming this was a provincial subject.

While expressing ‘in principle’ support for the idea of land reforms, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) Shireen Mazari also voiced her opposition to the MQM draft.

But her party colleague Asad Umar insisted on the bill’s importance, and forcefully called for it to be referred to the standing committee for debate.

Perhaps by design, the presiding officer then gave the floor, turn by turn, to a member each from the MQM, PPP and PTI, allowing them to argue aimlessly over the land reforms bill as government members snickered in the aisles.

Mr Qadri expressed indignation over the lack of adherence to the house rules, while Nawab Yousuf Talpur and Ghulam Mustafa Shah from the PPP argued against the proposed law on the grounds that it was limited to agricultural lands only. The latter called for expanding the scope of the law to include industrial and commercial lands as well.

In an emotionally charged speech, MQM leader Farooq Sattar deplored how the party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was opposing land reforms, which had once been a keystone of the PPP founder’s legislative agenda.

Maintaining that the law only targets ‘absentee landlords’, including those who continued to hold the lands and titles by the British Raj, he minced no words in taking the PPP to task for its apparent double standard over this particular issue.

The fag end of the session was a shambles, as Mr Virk struggled to maintain order in the house, with MQM and PTI members standing in their seats and trying to shout each other down.

The din was so loud that dissident PTI lawmaker Mussarat Ahmed Zeb had to walk right up to the speaker’s dais to point out a lack of quorum.

This proved to be a lucky break for the government, whose numbers had thinned even more, as the opposition’s infighting saved them from a potentially severe dressing-down at their hands.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2017

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