WHAT happened inside the Punjab Assembly on Saturday was nothing less than a brazen attack on the Constitution, besides being in contempt of the Lahore High Court’s directions to the deputy speaker to hold a vote to elect a new leader of the House. Democracy can be noisy and messy. However, when PTI and PML-Q lawmakers abused, attacked and injured Deputy Speaker Dost Mohammad Mazari to keep him from carrying out his parliamentary and court-mandated responsibilities, they crossed all limits. It is not enough to condemn the unprecedented violence perpetrated by the PTI-PML-Q lawmakers; those involved should be given exemplary punishment. The shameful events, which included the alleged help provided to lawmakers by some assembly staffers to smuggle lotas and banners into the House, indicate that the violence was premeditated, and that the PTI, and the only ally it is now left with, in their desperation, had planned to subvert the election process and delay the defeat of their candidate Chaudhry Pervez Elahi who was aiming for the top job in the province. In reaction, some PML-N members too lost their cool. Sadly, given the dangerous narrative that had been building up, disorder in the Punjab Assembly could not have been ruled out. And yet, no one could have anticipated the level of hooliganism that was on display.

The melee was an extension of the events we have seen in the National Assembly in recent days. Once the Constitution is disrespected, there is no end to it. Verbal abuse spewed on rivals at public meetings is now turning into physical violence. Social media hatred is spilling over into real life. And this is because of the extreme polarisation in society, which has resulted from the constant rants and abusive discourse perpetuated by politicians who are not prepared to respect the law or to accept a vote that goes against them. Fortunately, in the case of the Punjab Assembly, the deputy speaker was finally successful in holding the election, under strict police protection, as ordered by the court. PML-N’s Hamza Shehbaz Sharif was elected the new chief minister of Punjab after the PTI-PML-Q combine decided to ‘boycott’ the vote when it realised that the system, and not individual whims, would prevail.

Having said that, some words of censure must be reserved for the new government. With Shehbaz Sharif ruling in Islamabad and his son in Pakistan’s largest province, what kind of message is being conveyed to the public? Clearly, such concentration of power means that, even after three terms in government, the PML-N leadership is still not ready to repose its trust in party leaders who are not family members. That is exactly what their biggest rival in Punjab, the PTI, has been playing up in order to wean voters away from the Sharif fortress.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2022

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