In parliamentary address, Zardari calls for moving on from polarisation plaguing politics

Published April 18, 2024
President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the Joint Session of the Parliament at the beginning of the parliamentary year in Islamabad on April 18. — PID
President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the Joint Session of the Parliament at the beginning of the parliamentary year in Islamabad on April 18. — PID

President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday called for moving on from the “polarisation” plaguing domestic politics as his record seventh parliamentary address was marred by sloganeering from the opposition benches.

Zardari was elected to office on March 9, becoming the only Pakistani president to assume the role twice. Thursday’s address to the joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate was his seventh.

Zardari’s son PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and daughter Aseefa, who was recently sworn in as an MNA, were also in attendance, as well as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

As soon as the president began speaking, slogans from PTI-Sunni Ittehad Council lawmakers reverberated in the House as they chanted “Go Zardari go” while also carrying posters.

However, the president — who had a framed photo of his late wife ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto — was undeterred by the ruckus and powered on with his speech, which was at times drowned out by the sloganeering.

“The country needs us to move from the polarisation so common now to contemporary politics. This joint house must play a leading role in rebuilding public confidence in the parliamentary process,” Zardari said.

“Let us not confuse constructive disagreement and healthy noises of a growing democracy with the pursuit of zero-sum thinking,” he added.

At the outset of his address, the president said, “Let me take this opportunity to express my sincerest gratitude to all parliamentarians and provincial assembly members for their trust and confidence in electing me for a second time as the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I am humbled.”

“Let me begin this year by sharing my vision for the future; much of it is based on the choices I’ve made in my past,” he added.

Referring to the 18th Amendment brought during his previous tenure, he said, “[…] I chose to give away my powers to parliament […] I expect you to use those powers with the wisdom and maturity this country needs.”

Stating that he saw his role as a “unifying symbol of a joint and unified federation”, President Zardari emphasised it was “time to turn a new page”. “If we see today as a new beginning […] that we can build on our strength by investing in our people by focusing on public needs, […] we’ll create pathways to inclusive growth,” he added.

“The country needs us to take a pause and reflect on what we prioritise in our goals, our narratives and our agendas,” the president said.

He said: “I believe we can resist the political atmosphere to reflect more light than heat if we really want to but it will need all of us to step back and decide what matters the most. I mean all of us.”

Noting that he drew inspiration from great leaders such as Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and ex-premiers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir, Zardari said: “I firmly believe that by embracing the vision of these leaders, we can effectively tackle our challenges and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and political reconciliation.”

Stating that the challenges faced by the country were not impossible to overcome, he said they “just require dialogue, parliamentary consensus and a timeline [of] implementation of rigorous reforms aimed at addressing underlying issues”.

On terrorism, foreign relations

President Zardari also noted the recent rise in terror incidents: “The menace of terrorism is again rearing its head. It is threatening national security and regional peace and prosperity.”

He said that Pakistan believed terrorism was a shared concern requiring collective efforts and urged “neighbouring countries to take notice of actors launching attacks on our security forces”.

“My late wife gave her life standing up to terrorists,” Zardari said, adding that he was proud of the armed forces and the law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, speaking on foreign relations, President Zardari asserted that the country would “not let anyone undermine” its relationship with China or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

“We will ensure the security of our Chinese brothers and sisters,” he vowed. A suicide attack last month in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bisham claimed the lives of six people, including five Chinese nationals, prompting a probe that resulted in action against five senior police officers over negligence.

Terming China a “cornerstone to stability in the region”, Zardari extended his heartfelt gratitude to the neighbour for its “unwavering support to Pakistan in all fields and for its all-weather friendship”.

The president also reiterated Pakistan’s rejection of India’s 2019 revocation of Article 370, urging it to reverse the move. “We must remind the world of the sacrifices of our Kashmiri brethren,” he said, vowing moral and diplomatic support for the Kashmiri people.

On Israel’s military offensive on Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians and entered a seventh month, President Zardari said, “Similarly, we are deeply concerned over the tidal wave of indiscriminate killings of innocent Palestinians […] genocide committed by Israeli forces.”

He said Pakistan strongly condemned the “brutality and impunity of the [Israeli] occupation forces” and remained “steadfast in principal support of the establishment of an independent and viable Palestine” based on the pre-1996 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

On economy, education, health

The second-time president said: “Let’s begin with a vision that strives to leave no one behind […] the political leadership gathering in this house must prioritise the specific needs of marginalised communities in underdeveloped areas.”

He said that an “inclusive growth model that emphasised equality of opportunities” and positive working relationships between the federal government and the provinces was essential for a national agenda.

“Pakistan needs all hands on deck to revitalise its economy,” President Zardari stressed, adding that attracting foreign investment should be the country’s primary objective. He called on the government to simplify existing regulations and enable an environment for domestic and foreign investors.

“At the same time, we must accelerate endeavours to enhance the competitiveness of our products in global markets,” the president added, noting a “huge untapped potential” in various sectors, including agriculture, marine life, textile and IT.

President Zardari also touched upon the issue of climate change, recalling the devastating super floods of 2022 that hit the country. He highlighted that the country must invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and ensure that clean energy technology was affordable for the masses.

“Acknowledging” the issue of out-of-school children, the president urged all provincial governments to focus on transformative education reforms.

He further said that the health sector needed “rebuilding and expansion”. “Investments in primary and secondary health infrastructure must be made […] so no citizen lacks medical care,” he asserted.

President Zardari pointed out that a large part of the population was “slipping into poverty” and that a crisis of income and food existed.

Praising the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), Zardari said his slain wife was a “champion for women’s rights and went the extra mile in advancing women’s causes”.

“We need to bring more underprivileged women into the social safety net,” the president emphasised, expressing hope that the new government would work for it while “aggressively promoting girls’ education”.

The president had earlier summoned the session for April 16 but reportedly delayed it at the request of lawmakers, mostly from the coalition parties.

During his five-year stint in the Presidency from September 2008 to 2013, he had already addressed the parliament six times. The sixth address on April 16, 2013, too was a record as no other president had addressed as many joint sittings before him.

After the February 2008 elections, the constitutional requirement of calling a joint session was fulfilled by Zardari, following which ex-presidents Mamnoon Hussain and Dr Arif Alvi also upheld the practice of addressing the sitting at the beginning of each parliamentary year.

The joint session has been called in pursuance of Articles 54(1) and 56(3) of the Constitution, the latter stating: “At the commencement of the first session after each general election to the National Assembly and at the commencement of the first session of each year the President shall address both Houses assembled together […].”

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