• IMF-dictated changes to taxation carried out
• GDA member stages walkout over ‘rigged polls’
• Supplementary grants of past 3 years also approved
ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Wednesday approved the finance bill with some major changes relating to taxation and levy on petroleum products in line with government’s commitment with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The approval followed a verbal duel over the recent local government elections in 14 districts of Sindh in which the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had emerged victorious.
Without a meaningful opposition, the budget session that lasted three weeks proved to be a mere formality, as both Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and leader of opposition Raja Riaz did not even bother to attend the crucial sitting during which members on both sides of the aisle seemed eager to deliver political speeches, rather than discussing the budget.
Taking part in the debate on the finance bill, the opposition members regretted that through amendments, the government had completely changed the budget it had presented in the house on June 10. They particularly took the government to task over an amendment through which it had sought to increase petroleum levy up to Rs50 per litre.
Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, however, made it clear that the government had no intention to impose the levy and that through the amendment it had only sought approval of the house for increasing it from zero up to Rs50.
All the amendments that had been moved by the opposition members were rejected through voice vote.
Interestingly, during the clause-by-clause approval of the finance bill, the tiny opposition challenged the ruling of Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on a voice vote, forcing him to order a headcount.
The speaker later announced approval of the clause with a 120-11 vote.
The result of the headcount perhaps encouraged the treasury benches to speed up the process, and besides approving the budget, the government managed to get approved 29 supplementary grants worth Rs828bn for the year 2021-22, which was earlier scheduled for Thursday. Also, the assembly passed the supplementary grants for the previous three financial years.
During the course of the passage of the budget, the members mostly belonging to Sindh raised the issue of the violence-hit first phase of the local bodies elections in the province and accused the PPP of winning the polls through use of state machinery and rigging.
Besides the opposition Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), the ruling coalition partners — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) — also expressed their concern over the local government polls in Sindh though the latter said they would raise the matter with the PPP outside the parliament.
GDA’s Ghous Bakhsh Mahar staged a walkout from the assembly over the alleged rigging in the local government polls and did not return to the house.
Another GDA member Dr Fehmida Mirza, while participating in the proceedings, declared the recent elections “totally rigged”, alleging that the PPP had used deputy commissioners, police and all government officials to secure victory. She also questioned the role of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Without elaborating, she said if the “institutions” continued to keep their eyes closed, then definitely they would be heading towards a “disaster”.
Criticising economic policies of the PML-N government and protesting over the prolonged outages in the country, particularly in Sindh, Dr Mirza, who had served as the NA speaker during the previous PPP government, warned that the country could face a law and order situation if the people were not provided relief.
The newly-elected Muttahida lawmaker Abu Bakar declared that after seeing the outcome of the first phase of the LG polls in Sindh, his party would make every effort to stop its second phase in Karachi and Hyderabad. He also lodged his protest against the ECP over delimitation and faulty voters’ lists.
Earlier, speaking on a point of order, Minister for Communications Asad Mehmood expressed JUI-F’s concerns over the ‘poorly-managed’ elections in Sindh.
At the time when the members were trading rigging allegations, ex-president Asif Ali Zardari entered the house and the members were seen rushing towards him, perhaps to offer condolence over the demise of his mother. Later, Mr Zardari was seen having some serious discussion with the ministers, including Ayaz Sadiq.
Though a couple of PPP MNAs responded to the criticism against the party, the most befitting response came from none other than PPP Chairman and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
PPP lawmaker Agha Rafiullah, without naming anyone, passed some derogatory remarks against Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, the husband of Fehmida Mirza and once a close confidant of Mr Zardari. Some of the remarks were later expunged by the chair. PPP legislator Shazia Marri also responded to her former colleague in an aggressive manner.
In his response, Minister Bhutto-Zardari said rigging had always been committed against the PPP through a systemic approach. “Today the beneficiaries of rigging are complaining to you,” he said while addressing the speaker.
“They cannot win the elections. [PTI Chairman] Imran Khan is complaining about our institutions being neutral since undemocratic parties like his cannot win otherwise. This is why today, they are running a movement for our institutions to play a controversial role instead of a neutral and constitutional one,” he said.
At the outset of the sitting, two MQM MNAs — Sabir Kaimkhani and Salahuddin — staged a token walkout protesting over the attitude of a minister whose name they did not mention. However, the criticism on the performance of railways and airlines by the lawmakers showed that they were angry over Minister for Railways and Aviation Khawaja Saad Rafique. Before staging the walkout, Mr Salahuddin said they had paid heavy political price for joining the present ruling coalition. They, however, did not elaborate the specific reason for their protest and later voted on the budget with the treasury members.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2022