PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi talks to reporters after the National Assembly session on Tuesday.—Online
PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi talks to reporters after the National Assembly session on Tuesday.—Online

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on Tuesday put all speculations about a possible split within the party to rest when it defeated a Nawaz Sharif-specific opposition bill — seeking to restore the bar on a disqualified person from holding party office — in the National Assembly.

NA Speaker Ayaz Sadiq announced the result of the 163-98 vote in a charged assembly hall, amid heavy sloganeering from both sides of the aisle.

The only minor embarrassment for the ruling party was the defiance of former prime minister and government ally Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who openly voted with the opposition benches when the speaker ordered a headcount. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) also voted with the opposition.

MQM, former PM Jamali vote with opposition

Both the government and opposition parties had taken special measures to ensure the presence of their respective members on private member’s day, in anticipation of a vote on the bill seeking an amendment to the Elections Act 2017.

The amendment aimed to remove clause 203 from the act, which allowed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to reclaim his position as the president of the PML-N following his disqualification by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case.

The bill, which has already been passed by the opposition-dominated Senate last month, was submitted to the National Assembly by Syed Naveed Qamar and Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

As the bill has already been passed by the Senate, the government will now have to place it before a joint sitting of parliament for a final vote.

In order to ensure the presence of maximum members, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi hosted a luncheon for party legislators before chairing a meeting of the parliamentary group.

Privatisation Minister Daniyal Aziz later told reporters that 167 MNAs were present in the meeting, adding that such a large turnout proved that the PML-N was united under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif and that all reports of rifts and forward blocs within the party had been proven wrong.

Long before they sought leave to introduce the bill, opposition members sensed their impending defeat, as was evident from the sarcastic remarks passed by Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the outset of the session.

Pointing towards the brimming treasury benches, Mr Shah observed that it was nice to see faces that had never been seen in the house before.

Similarly, Mr Qureshi said that he was happy to see such high attendance in the house, terming it a “pleasant change”.

“What has brought these members back to the house? Perhaps it is due to the blessings of Clause 203, the sumptuous meal and development funds [they were promised],” Mr Qureshi taunted the treasury members.

PML-N MNA Rajab Baloch, who has been battling cancer, took the floor and refuted reports that the police had been activated to forcefully bring ruling party members to the house. He said no one had asked him to attend the session, and he had come to attend the parliamentary meeting of his own free will.

Arguing in favour of the bill, Naveed Qamar said it did not seem appropriate to see a disqualified person dictating policy to parliament. He termed the law against the “essence” of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, saying that such person-specific legislation had proven detrimental to the country.

Despite opposition from treasury members, the speaker also allowed PTI’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi to make a speech, even though he was not a mover of the bill.

However, his remarks were not audible in the galleries due to constant interruptions and sloganeering from both opposition and treasury members.

He said the clause in question was undermining the sanctity of parliament as a whole, since the Senate, which represented the federation, was refusing to endorse it, and both houses were in direct conflict with each other on the issue.

This conflict between parliament and the Supreme Court was disturbing the balance of power between various organs of the state, he said, and regretted that a party that had governed for three decades could not find a single individual who could head the party and meet the standards of qualification set out in Article 62 of the Constitution.

Opposing the bill, Law Minister Zahid Hamid criticised the PPP for moving the legislation, which had been thrown out by their founding chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1970s. He said the provision was re-introduced by former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2002 since he wanted to keep Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif out of politics.

He claimed that none of the parties objected to the clause when a committee and a subsequent sub-committee looking into election laws had suggested the removal of the provisions related to disqualification. He claimed the law was not person-specific as the draft had been prepared in 2014, long before the Panama Papers issue surfaced. In fact, he said, it was opposition’s bill was Nawaz Sharif-specific.

Mr Shah also launched a personal attack on Mr Hamid, saying that his last job was to defend the military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf as his law minister.

Railways Minister Saad Rafique also made a fiery speech, alleging that the opposition was doing all this at the behest of “someone else”.

“If you don’t like Nawaz Sharif, we can’t help that. But for God’s sake don’t try to bring laws on the basis of the doctrine of necessity and prejudice, which will ultimately weaken democracy in the country,” he said.

Soon after announcing the result of the vote, the speaker read out the president’s prorogation order, without taking up the dozen remaining items on the agenda.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017