Govt shrugs off rivals’ outcry, bulldozes 33 bills through joint sitting

Published November 18, 2021
Prime Minister Imran Khan and other members take part in the proceedings of the joint session of parliament.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and other members take part in the proceedings of the joint session of parliament.

• Laws on EVMs, I-voting for overseas Pakistanis passed by parliament
• After protest, token boycott, opposition takes part in proceedings

ISLAMABAD: Amid criticism over growing inflation and price hike, the coalition government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday triumphed in getting through a record number of 33 bills, including the controversial bill on electronic voting machines (EVMs) and I-voting for the overseas Pakistanis, from the joint sitting of parliament after facing initial resistance from the opposition which later desperately resorted to a noisy protest and a token walkout from the house after failing to complete its numbers.

At the outset, the perplexed opposition members made every effort to prevent the government from tabling the controversial bills and making their passage difficult, but after facing a 221-203 vote defeat on a motion moved by Adviser to the Prime Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan seeking presentation of the Elections (Second Amendment) Bill-2021, they preferred walking out of the main hall.

After a few minutes, the opposition members surprisingly returned and fully participated in the house proceedings, allowing the treasury benches to complete the 72-point agenda without much difficulty.

The prime minister, who remained seated most of the time, left the house before completion of the agenda after realising that his presence was no more required to ensure maximum attendance on the treasury benches.

Before giving floor to the adviser and Law Minister Farogh Naseem to present the bills one by one, Speaker Asad Qaiser allowed the opposition leaders to deliver speeches in which they lashed out at the government for “bulldozing” the legislations on issues of national importance and announced that they would challenge these laws before the Supreme Court.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also raised some technical objections on the proceedings of the joint sitting. He was of the view that as per the rules, the government required a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly and the Senate to get a bill passed in a joint session, which meant that the government required at least 222 members in the 442-member house.

However, the speaker rejected the objection while referring to Article 72 of the Constitution which says that a simple majority of the members present during a joint sitting is required to get a bill passed. Mr Qaiser ruled that the Constitution held precedence over the rules.

Raising the objection, Ahsan Iqbal of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said that being an adviser, Mr Awan could not move the bill as per the order of the Islamabad High Court. This objection was also overruled by the chair.

When the speaker ignored the opposition’s protest and allowed the government to present the bills, the opposition members gathered in front of his dais and raised full-throated anti-government slogans, torn apart the copies of the agenda and the bills and threw them on the speaker.

Later, when Mr Awan moved an amendment to the bill, the opposition again challenged the speaker’s ruling on a voice vote and asked him to order a vote count, which he did. However, the counting process could not be completed as the opposition members refused to go back to their seats. The speaker reprimanded PML-N’s Murtaza Javed Abbasi who was accompanying and monitoring the assembly staff when they were counting the treasury members as the opposition alleged that the government had made a wrong vote count to show its majority.

In a rare scene, Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif and Mr Bhutto-Zardari also joined their colleagues protesting in front of the speaker’s dais and they were seen having heated exchange of arguments with the chair, before leading the opposition’s walkout.

During all this time, sergeants-at-arm and some treasury members surrounded the smiling prime minister and stayed alert to prevent the protesting opposition members from coming into physical contact with the PM. At one occasion, the opposition and the treasury members, including ministers Shehryar Afridi, Murad Saeed and Ali Amin Gandapur, were seen pushing each other just behind the prime minister’s chair.

According to the party position, the number of opposition members in the 440-member joint house comes to 219 against 221 treasury members. This shows that the government obtained all the votes whereas the opposition remained short of 16 members. As expected the group of six independents led by Dilawar Khan, who had opted to sit on opposition benches at the time of nomination of the PPP’s Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani as opposition leader in the Senate, did not support the opposition during the joint session.

Prominent opposition members who were not present in the house were Syed Naveed Qamar, Sikandar Mandhro, Yousuf Talpur and Abdul Karim Bijar of the PPP, Akhtar Mengal of the Balochistan National Movement and Afreen Khan of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal. Besides them, independent MNA Ali Wazir could not attend the sitting as he is presently in jail. A number of opposition members in their speeches criticised the speaker for not issuing his production order.

MNA Mohsin Dawar regretted that the government had released members of the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, but it was not ready to release an elected representative who was in jail only for delivering an anti-government speech.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry later claimed that only two of treasury members -- Khalid Magsi and Ali Nawaz Shah -- were missing during the joint sitting.

Earlier, taking the floor, Shehbaz Sharif while opposing the government-proposed electoral reforms, termed the EVMs “evil and vicious machines”. Criticising the speaker, he said the invitation to the opposition for consultation was “a ploy to buy time” so that the government could secure the votes it needed. He said there were always allegations of rigging after the elections, but “this is the first time in history that there are allegations of rigging before elections”.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari declared that they would not accept coming elections if the government insisted on getting the EVM bill passed and announced that they would challenge these laws in the court.

Speaking next, the JUI-F’s Maulana Asad Mahmood questioned the urgency being shown by the government in getting the electoral reforms bills passed.

“Why there are talks that the government wants to get these bills passed before Nov 19,” he said, in an apparent reference to the date on which Inter-Service Intelligence chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed would relinquish his charge.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi rejected the opposition’s allegations that the PTI wanted to use the EVMs to rig the elections.

Laws passed

Besides the bill on EVMs and overseas Pakistanis, the government also managed to get the International Court of Justice (Review and Reconsideration) Bill-2021 passed, aimed at providing right of appeal to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav in line with the decision of the International Court of Justice.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2021 was also adopted which provides for the punishment of “chemical castration” of the habitual rapist.

The Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill 2021 providing for establishment of special courts and use of modern devices during the investigation and trial of rape cases was also among the bills passed.

The government, however, deferred one of the election-related bills which allows dual nationals to contest elections.

The house also passed a motion allowing the joint sitting of the parliament to decide the fate of the Council of Common Interests’ controversial decision regarding the population census. Minister for Planning Asad Umar announced that on the demand of the parties, particularly the MQM, the government had decided to hold fresh census in the country next year.

Among the 33 approved bills, there were two private member’s bills which had been moved by the opposition members.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2021

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