THIS week’s tumultuous joint sitting of parliament was eerily reminiscent of last year’s Senate session, where backdoor wheeling and dealing had resulted in the shock defeat of the no-confidence vote brought by the opposition against chairman Sadiq Sanjrani. On Wednesday, the ‘Sanjrani model’ wizardry was once again on full display during the joint sitting of parliament that President Alvi had summoned to get FATF-related bills passed. Even though the bills had earlier been rejected in the opposition-dominated Senate, the government managed to have three key FATF bills passed, along with five others. Despite having the numbers, the opposition yet again failed to block the bills despite vociferous criticism against the proposed amendments, which they allege grant sweeping powers of surveillance to the government. The PML-N’s Shahid Khaqan Abbasi later said that “no businessmen will now be safe from NAB”; yet, over 30 legislators from the opposition ranks were mysteriously missing from the session, as against 16 absentees from the government’s side. As a result, the first bill was passed with the majority of 10 votes. The number of votes cast by the government and its allies were at 200, while opposition members were said to be 190.
That the opposition with their numbers was defeated on such a significant day is shocking. If, as the opposition have said, the FATF bills are so damaging, why did such a significant number of parliamentarians skip proceedings on such an important day? Here, the confidence and body language of government legislators’, especially of the prime minister, offer some clues. The way the joint session was called, it appears that the government circles had been assured that they would have the numbers to pass these bills at the time of voting. The prime minister’s speech in the Assembly was akin to a victory speech delivered with the bullishness of one who knows they have secured the prize. This should be a moment of reckoning for the opposition: if their own members are working against them, why would the government take them seriously? But not only should the opposition get its house in order, the government, too, should have accepted some of the proposed amendments instead of relishing the apparent help it had in keeping so many opposition legislators away from the session. The entire episode is an affront to the sanctity of parliament. There should be no space for such manoeuvring in a healthy democracy.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2020