• Bilawal condemns Centre’s ‘interference in elections’
• PML-N says decision taken in light of MPC declaration

ISLAMABAD: Amid rising political tension, opposition parties have intensified consultative process to give a final shape to their anti-government drive and as a first step towards implementing their 26-point declaration, decided to stay away from a meeting of the parliamentary leaders convened by National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser tomorrow (on Monday) to discuss the upcoming elections in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

The decision to boycott the NA Speaker’s meeting was officially announced by Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari through his official social media account on Twitter after reports that Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman had talked to deposed prime minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif over the phone and discussed the plan to give a formal shape to the newly-formed opposition alliance with the name of Pakistan Democratic Movement.

Also, Mr Bhutto-Zardari nominated former prime ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf to represent the party in the committee to devise the future strategy from the PDM platform.

In Lahore, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif endorsed the hard-hitting speech of his elder brother at the multiparty conference (MPC) of the opposition and said the option of resigning from the assemblies was under serious consideration. This was his first interaction with journalists after the September 20 conference, which was followed by reports about a PML-N leader’s secret meeting with the military leadership.

President Arif Alvi had last week notified November 15 as the date for the elections on 24 general seats of the GB Legislative Assembly over four months after it had completed its five-year term bringing an end to PML-N’s rule in the strategically-located region. The polling was initially scheduled to be held August 18, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Interference’ in elections condemned

“The Speaker NA and the federal ministers have nothing to do with the elections in GB. We condemn the interference of the federal government with elections. My party will only be engaging with the Election Commission GB on our demands for fair elections,” Mr Bhutto-Zardari tweeted while announcing the decision to boycott the parliamentary leaders’ meeting.

PPP’s vice-president Sherry Rehman, when contacted to know the reason behind the party’s decision, said her party believed that the National Assembly speaker had no mandate to discuss the elections in Gilgit-Baltistan. Moreover, she said, the opposition parties did not want to have any engagement with the speaker after the controversial role he had played in bulldozing the recent legislations during the joint sitting of the parliament.

Similarly, PML-N’s information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb told Dawn that the PML-N had decided to stay away from the speaker’s meeting in light of the MPC declaration. She made it clear that through the MPC declaration, the opposition parties had already announced that in future they would not cooperate with the “selected and fraud government” inside and outside the parliament.

PML-N’s secretary general Ahsan Iqbal said the federal ministers and the speaker had no locus standi on the issue of the GB elections. The federal government should immediately disengage itself from all the activities related to the elections in GB, he said, adding that there should have been a ban on the visits of federal ministers to the region after the announcement of the election schedule.

Speaker Asad Qaiser had sent letters to the parliamentary leaders of all the parties having representation in the National Assembly, inviting them to the meeting being convened on the issue of GB elections. Prominent among those who had been invited were Shahbaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Balochistan National Party-Mengal chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal, Asad Mehmood of the JUI-F, Chaudhry Tariq Bashir Cheema of Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

The NA speaker in the letter had stated that some circles were expressing concerns and doubts about the transparency in the GB elections. He claimed that he was convening the meeting so that the parliamentary leaders could suggest steps for ensuring transparency in the GB polls.

The PML-N secretary general said it was in fact the responsibility of the Chief Election Commissioner of Gilgit-Baltistan to announce a Code of Conduct for the elections after consulting all the political parties. In fact, he said, the federal government should also be stopped from announcing development projects in GB. He warned the federal government against making any effort to rig the GB polls and said any such action would be against the national interest and national security.

He said free, fair and transparent elections in GB were in the interest of Pakistan as it could not afford to have any political controversy or dispute in the region that already had become a flashpoint. He explained that GB was a “sensitive area” and a flashpoint in the region, as the enemies were looking for excuses to spoil the law and order situation there.

The NA speaker took the initiative on the sensitive issue a day after the opposition and the government had agreed to hold consultations on the proposal of granting “provisional provincial status” to GB after the elections.

The representatives of the government and the opposition parties had also discussed the upcoming GB elections and the proposal to grant it a ‘provisional provincial status” in a meeting with Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Director General of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed on September 16.

A day after the opposition’s MPC, the disclosure of the security meeting on GB by federal Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed stirred a new debate in the country with few criticising the politicians for, what they called, maintaining secret contacts with the military and the others raising fingers on the military for indulging in political matters.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs is also scheduled to be held on Monday on the one-point agenda of discussing the GB polls. The opposition parties are so far undecided about participation in the meeting.

Despite repeated attempts, the National Assembly speaker could not be approached for his comments over the development.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020