PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speak during the National Assembly session on Saturday.—Dawn
PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speak during the National Assembly session on Saturday.—Dawn

ISLAMABAD: By the time the house adjourned for iftar, nearly everyone who had been at the National Assembly since the session began around 10:30am could be seen squirming in their seats.

It was a tiring and nerve-wracking day as the government tested the patience of opposition members by apparently delaying the vote on the no confidence resolution against Prime Minister Imran Khan on purpose.

This was obvious from the moment Speaker Asad Qaiser allowed a debate on the issue of an alleged US conspiracy that was said to be behind the move to oust the present regime.

There were at least four intervals during the day and in each interim, opposition leaders — including PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and others — held talks with the speaker in the presence of some government ministers and urged him to put the no-confidence resolution to vote, in line with the Supreme Court order.

Before the late-night excitement, NA members’ patience was sorely tested by long-winded speeches

During his speech, Khawaja Saad Rafique of the PML-N disclosed that the opposition members also had had a detailed meeting with the government representatives late on Friday night, claiming that the ministers had assured them that they would allow voting on the resolution during Saturday’s sitting.

In the house, frontline opposition leaders delivered speeches where the common demand was that the speaker should stop dilly-dallying and go ahead with voting on the no-confidence resolution immediately to avoid possible contempt of court charges.

On the other hand, speakers from the treasury benches criticised the court’s order, terming it interference in parliamentary affairs and accused the opposition of becoming a part of international conspiracy against the government.

Numerical strength

The opposition once again showed its majority in the NA as PML-N’s Marriyum Aurangzeb claimed that 176 MNAs were present on the opposition ben­ches. According to her, Iqbal Mohammad Ali Khan of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) was the only member missing from the opposition benches as he was unable to attend due to illness.

Besides opposition members, lawmakers from the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) and PML-Q — former allies of the ruling PTI — were also sitting on the opposition benches, whereas around 20 PTI dissidents, who were being kept as ‘reservists’, were also seen roaming around the assembly hall. However, most of them remained in the opposition’s lobby.

Bonhomie across the aisle

Despite the tense atmosphere, a number of PTI members, including some federal ministers, could be seen gossiping with opposition lawmakers during intervals and loud peals of laughter could be heard in the press galleries. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry was seen having long and serious chats with PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafiq and Rana Sanaullah, separately.

Similarly, Planning Minister Asad Umar was also seen talking to BAP leader Khalid Magsi, whereas another PML-N MNA Javed Latif was also seen frequently visiting the treasury benches and exchanging pleasantries with the government members.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ex-wife Reham Khan also witnessed Saturday’s proceedings from the women’s gallery, where she was greeted by a number of opposition members.

Other notables who graced the speaker’s gallery included Bilawal’s sister Aseefa; former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah.

Filibuster attempt

At the outset of the sitting, speaking on a point of order, Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif lauded Thursday’s landmark verdict of the apex court and warned the speaker that if he took up any item other than what was on the agenda, it would be a violation of the Supreme Court order.

After Mr Sharif, the speaker gave the floor to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to open debate on the controversial diplomatic cable from Pakistan’s former ambassador in Washington.

In what appeared to be an attempt to filibuster the session, the foreign minister delivered a long-winded speech where he lashed out at the opposition for allegedly becoming part of a foreign conspiracy.

Acknowledging that Saturday may be his last day as a minister, Mr Qureshi said the process for the prime minister’s Russia visit was set in motion two months in advance and that Mr Khan had decided to go to Moscow after consulting all stakeholders.

“We are a sovereign state. We do not want to bear the yoke of slavery,” he said, revealing that prior to the Russia visit, the US national security adviser (NSA) called his Pakistani counterpart with one message: “Don’t go.”

The minister asked how a sovereign state could be stopped from a bilateral visit in this manner and lashed out at the opposition for terming the “threat letter” fake. “If the opposition members still have questions about that document, I will give a briefing in parliament. Let’s go for an in-camera session and let the ambassador to the US tell us whether he stands by what he sent,” said Mr Qureshi.

The minister also said that opposition parties had been calling for elections for the last three and a half years and now, when the prime minister had announced elections, these parties were not ready to face the people.

Mr Qureshi also criticised the Election Commis­sion of Pakistan (ECP) for not announcing a decision on the PTI’s petition regarding horse-trading during the Senate elections held in March last year.

Dividing state institutions

After him, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari took the floor and, in a hard-hitting speech, forcefully defended the opposition’s move to bring a no-confidence resolution against the prime minister, refuting government claims of a foreign conspiracy.

The young PPP chairman also hit out at the PTI for allegedly courting the support of the military establishment in the past and even tactfully named former directors general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt-Gen Faiz Hamid and Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, declaring that Mr Khan no more enjoyed that support.

He said the present fight was between those who wished to remain apolitical and neutral and those who wished to be biased and wanted interference.

“The real conspiracy is that Imran fears free and fair elections ... It is their conspiracy to not let the vote of no confidence take place. They want to stick to power for a day or two even if it means that the speaker and the chairman are made scapegoats,” he said, addressing Amjid Ali Khan, who was presiding over the sitting at that time.

Responding to the government’s criticism on the Supreme Court’s judgement, the PPP chairman said this was not the first time in Pakistan that a speaker’s ruling had been thrown out by the court.

He also accused the PTI government of dividing state institutions, including the judiciary and establishment.

PPP ‘political university’

Mr Bhutto-Zardari also remarked that most of the faces on the treasury benches had been ‘lotas’ (turncoats) most of their life.

“Wherever I look, there are lotas. When the foreign minister was changing his party for the first time, how much money did he take? What was the price of his conscience the second time he changed parties? And what was the price when he was selling his conscience for the third time?” he said.

It is worth noting that Mr Qureshi was also the foreign minister under the previous PPP government.

His father, Asif Ali Zardari, also said something similar when he observed that his party was the only ‘political university’ of the country, adding wryly that he saw several graduates of that varsity on the treasury benches.

“They will come back, eventually,” he remarked.

He then addressed the presiding officer, saying: “I ask very humbly and with humility that you please start the voting process. I do not want to approach the court against you.”

Responding to the opposition’s demand, Mr Qaiser assured the house that he would conduct the proceedings strictly according to the law and the Constitution and that he would follow the court’s order in true letter and spirit.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2022

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