• No one from treasury benches defends govt’s economic policy
• PPP continues ‘token boycott’
• Ministers’ absence flayed
• MQM terms budget ‘a threat to national security’

ISLAMABAD: The ruling PML-N faced an unprecedented backlash in the National Assembly on Fri­day, with even lawmakers from the treasury benches joining their opposition counterparts as they lashed out at Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb for presenting a ‘tax-loaded and IMF-dictated budget’, while a key ally in the ruling coalition continuing its boycott of the general debate on the budget.

The second day of the budget debate was also marked by a fierce criticism of the government by the members from both sides over the absence of the ministers, especially the finance minister, from proceedings.

The PPP, a key partner in the ruling coalition, continued its protest by only having a ‘token participation’, as its members attended the session but didn’t participate in the debate as a mark of protest over alleged violation of an agreement reached with the PML-N at the time of the formation of the government after the February elections and for not consulting it on the preparation of the budget.

The PPP’s act of boycotting the debate came as a surprise for many amid rep­orts that the issues between the two parties had been settled after a meeting between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Thursday evening. Interestingly, five PML-N members participated in the debate on Friday, but none of them dared support the government’s economic policies and almost all of them complained that they were also not consulted by the fina­nce minister and bureaucrats while preparing the budget.

PML-N’s Asiya Naz Tanoli, though praised her party for saving the country from going bankrupt, mostly talked about the performance of the past PML-N governments under Nawaz Sharif.

Taking part in the debate, the opposition members belonging to the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) took the government to task over the alleged political victimisation of the party and demanded immediate release of PTI’s founding chairman Imran Khan and other party activists who had been jailed in different cases.

Absence of ministers

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also attended the sitting for a few minutes, but most of the time the front treasury rows remained empty, drawing criticism from the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

PPP’s Shazia Marri endorsed criticism by SIC’s Asad Qaiser over the absence of ministers from the proceedings, forcing Deputy Speaker Ghulam Mustafa Shah to issue directives for PML-N’s chief whip Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry to take up the matter with the prime minister and ensured the presence of the ministers in the assembly’s proceedings on Saturday.

A number of SIC members, including Leader of the Opposition Omar Ayub, said the finance minister was not coming to the house as he was unable to face the elected representatives.

Terming the situation “shameful”, Mr Ayub demanded that salaries of the ministers be deducted. He said only the opposition members were taking part in the debate which showed that there was no one on the treasury benches to own and defend this budget.

The lawmakers grilled the finance minister over indirect taxation and for putting more burden on the salaried class, besides imposing sales tax on each and every item, including stationery items, books, packed milk and medical equipment. Most of the MNAs termed it an “IMF-dictated budget” which, they said, had been presented only to appease foreign masters and to get more loans.

Almost all the lawmakers in their speeches protested the ongoing loadshedding in their constituencies despite a constant increase in electricity prices.

The first salvo on the ruling PML-N was fired by Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM-P, another party in the ruling coalition, who not only called it a “traditional budget”, but also termed it a “threat to the national security and survival of the country”.

He was of the view that the country could not achieve growth with an “overtaxed and wrongly-taxed economy”, adding that the country’s economy was now in a “state of stagflation”.

Dr Sattar said that though party MNA Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui is a part of the federal cabinet, he claimed that these taxation measures were not discussed in the cabinet meeting. He warned that the people were becoming “rebellion” and soon they would be in the streets like the people of Azad Kashmir, who got a relief in the power charges through their long and consistent protests.

Claiming that the government was collecting 70 per cent revenue through indirect taxes, Dr Sattar called for taxing the agriculture income and providing relief to the middle class and salaried people. He also called for reducing general sales tax from the existing 17pc to 9pc.

The MQM MNA criticised both the PPP and PML-N over their duplicity in supporting Rs20 increase in petroleum development levy despite the fact the two parties in the past used to call it “extortion”.

Without naming the finance minister, PML-N MNA from Islamabad Raja Khurram Shahzad said those who made the budget had never even shaken hands with the common man throughout their lifetime and they were not aware of the people’s problems. He complained that the elected representatives were not consulted on the budget-making and termed parliament a “rubberstamp”.

Another PML-N MNA, Zulfiqar Bhatti, said the present budget had been prepared by bureaucrats while sitting behind the doors, lamenting that corruption was increasing in the country.

MQM’s Arshad Vohra, while pointing towards empty treasury benches, suggested that there should be an “online debate” on the budget. He termed the budget mere “jugglery” of the figures, stating that 44pc of the country’s economy was “unaccounted for”.

The NA will now meet again today (Saturday) at 11am.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2024

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