LAHORE: Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and other speakers at a session of the Asma Jahangir Conference 2018 on Sunday called upon all political parties to resist attempts to undermine or undo the 18th Amendment so as to protect civil liberties and rights of the provinces hard won through this change in the Constitution.
Many federal subjects were devolved to the provinces through this amendment which had also plugged constitutional spaces for martial laws and their validation by courts. Its withdrawal or undermining would directly impact provincial autonomy and civil liberties. Therefore, all attempts against the amendment should be foiled, the speakers said.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari said the PPP had always respected the Constitution and its authority, adding that by bringing the 18th Amendment the party had sought to protect the Constitution and rule of law while strengthening the federation and giving the provinces their due share. He warned against rolling back the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission Award.
Praising Asma Jahangir, he said “when injustice took place, her voice was the loudest and now there is deafening, deafening silence”.
“As the son and political heir of Benazir Bhutto, I hold Asma’s principles as a shining light, and promise to fight for constitutional empowerment. This is a debt that we owe to both Benazir Bhutto and Asma Jahangir and we will succeed, lest we be left at the mercy of dangerous duffers.”
Bilawal, other speakers praise Asma Jahangir for her fight against injustice
The PPP chairman also spoke about an array of issues that he said were plaguing the country. “Today a ‘selected’ government desperately seeks to lose all the democratic milestones we have covered,” he said. “Our media is under assault and is facing unprecedented censorship; human rights are in danger and rule of law has been discarded thanks to populism. Theatrics have triumphed over substance.”
He said democracy faced serious threats not only from unelected sources but also from “so-called democrats”. The supremacy of parliament and the sanctity of the Constitution were under attack, he said.
He mentioned the ‘unlevel playing field’ given to almost all parties during the 2018 elections which he said ended up in giving the country an ‘incompetent government’ that dabbled in ‘Chandanomics’, pushing the country to instability. Politics had been replaced by hysteria and abuse, he added.
“There is lack of policy and inconsistency, and through constant U-turns have failed to inspire confidence,” he said. “The objective of the present government seems to be to establish a fascist one-party dictatorship where criticism is treated as a crime and opposition is threatened with intimidation.”
Mr Bhutto-Zardari also criticised the judiciary, saying that it was unfortunate how they were more concerned by trivialities rather than giving people justice.
“The Constitution does not begin or end with the judges and the courts would do well to remember this,” he said. “We need to re-examine the same judiciary and the vast powers given to judges under Article 183-4 need to be questioned.”
Former senator and rights activist Afrasiab Khan Khattak said the subcontinent was divided twice — first in 1947 (partition) and then in 1971 (fall of Dhaka) on the provincial autonomy issue. Pakistan used the colonial model of nation building till 1971 and the democratic model afterwards. Politicians made the 1973 Constitution, but it was never accepted by the establishment as it wanted centralisation.
He said the 18th Amendment that empowered the provinces came in the light of the Charter of Democracy of 2006. It empowered the provinces, Senate and Council of Common Interests, protected human rights and disallowed Constitution’s subversion, suspension or holding it in abeyance and court validation of such actions. The major thing nevertheless was an increase in provincial share in the federal divisible pool and this was hurting the quarters concerned, he added.
“If you subvert the 18th Amendment, we will demand the instrument of parity which was used for Bengal. We would demand more seats in parliament on the basis this principle of parity,” he said, praising Asif Ali Zardari for surrendering president’s powers to dissolve the assembly.
PPP’s Farhatullah Babar mentioned the reported statement of the army chief on the 18th Amendment and said there were apprehensions that the powers given to the marginalised provinces under the 18th Amendment could be reversed. He said the steps that raised eyebrows started in 2015 when Rs100 billion was spared for defence, adding that courts were questioning the 18th Amendment whereas the Constitution did not provide for it. He feared that the 18th Amendment and the NFC Award under it, which had increased provincial allocations, might be bulldozed.
Hasil Bizenjo of the National Party praised Mr Zardari and former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani for the 18th Amendment and said that an earlier such instrument could have prevented dismemberment of Bangladesh.
He said the establishment never accepted the 18th Amendment and claimed that politicians were not left independent. They would have to decide whether they should live under the silent takeover or not. Their silence would eliminate them. They should fight against the takeover on political front. The spaces provided by the 18th Amendment were being quietly encroached upon, he said.
PPP’s former senator Taj Haider wondered if institutions in Pakistan were being replaced by different form of fascism, adding that the slogans of change were hollow and false and those raising them knew that it could not honour their claims.
He said the 18th Amendment provided equal rights to the provinces on oil and gas reserves, but the powers that be were saying that this clause was applicable to new finds which had never been made ever since. There was a mention of federal government’s financial constraints. The share of the provinces in the divisible pool could not be reduced under the 18th Amendment, but it was being said that the president could do it under the Constitution, he added.
“We sacrificed many people mainly Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto in our long struggle. We must declare that the gains we have made through the 18th Amendment shall never be compromised,” he said.
Advocate Salman Raja said the establishment’s recent dissatisfaction over the 18th Amendment, court judgements on powers of the Centre and the provinces, attempts to realign jurisdiction of the federal government and the procedure for appointment of superior court judges were significant. These issues were settled in the 18th Amendment but were once again touched upon, he added.
Advocate Akhtar Hussain said the Constitution needed further fine-tuning because it denied equal rights to all citizens. Courts could not make laws, they were to interpret these, he added.
In reply to questions, Mr Khattak said the de facto was trying to overpower the de jure in Pakistan at present. “And we are attempting to check this as this would create manifold problems for the country. All the political parties must frame a new charter of democracy to protect the de jure powers.”
Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2018