ISLAMABAD, March 16: The new National Assembly opens on Monday under tight security to herald a promised spring of a democracy despite a bruising power struggle over the next prime minister, shadows of bloody violence and warnings of a confrontation with a powerful but isolated presidency.
A likely brief session for oath-taking by 334 newly elected members of the 342-seat lower house will mark the beginning of their five-year term, which will see the change of roles between the former ruling coalition of President Pervez Musharraf’s loyalists who lost and former opposition parties who won the Feb 18 general election.
But a tragedy at this historic milestone in Pakistan’s chequered political history will be the absence of Benazir Bhutto, who became a major catalyst of this transition from more than eights years of an iron-fisted military-led rule and could have been the star of the day if she had not been assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack in Rawalpindi on Dec 27 immediately after she addressed a campaign rally of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Though the PPP, as the largest single party in the National Assembly with 121 seats, is poised to take power in coalition with former bitter rival-turned-ally 91-seat Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and two other smaller partners, Ms Bhutto’s legacy is afflicted with a melodramatic power struggle so soon after her death.
The body language at Monday’s sitting could give some indication about the strength of Ms Bhutto’s own stated original choice for the office, PPP senior vice-chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim or any potential challenger favoured by her spouse and party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, or about whether Mr Zardari would himself take the job for which he must win a National Assembly seat in a by-election.
The issue of a prime minister’s choice has stolen part of the limelight from some of the other major issues of concern to the new assembly such as the potential face-off with the president over the coalition’s promise to restore about 60 superior court judges he sacked under his controversial Nov 3, 2007 emergency and the problems for the new government ranging from tackling militant violence to the citizens’ acute issues of bread and butter.
The PPP has promised to announce its prime ministerial candidate this week before the president calls a new session to elect a prime minister, which a parliamentary source said could be delayed to early next week because of Eid Milad-un-Nabi (birthday of the holy Prophet Mohammad, PBUH) falling on March 21 and the Pakistan Day on March 23.
A joint meeting of the coalition partners, including 13-seat Awami National Party and the newly inducted ally six-seat Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), will be held at 9am on Monday for what an alliance source called a get-together before marching into the house together as the would-be rulers for the inaugural session beginning at 11am as will do the members of the former ruling coalition led by the 51-seat Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and including 25-seat Muttahida Qaumi Movement and some smaller groups.
But the source said the majority coalition meeting was unlikely to consider the question of the future prime minister or its candidates for the offices of house speaker and deputy speaker, both of which must go to the PPP under the coalition agreement and will be announced by the party itself before their election on Wednesday.
The meeting will be jointly chaired by Mr Zardari and Mr Fahim from the PPP, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan and MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the source said.
Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, as well as PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif — all of whom are not members of the house --- will then take seats in the prime minister’s box for visitors to watch the lawmakers administered oath by outgoing Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain.Some questions are likely to be asked before the oath-taking over whether the members will take oath under the Constitution as it existed before the Nov 3 emergency or the one as amended by President Musharraf under his emergency powers in his now abandoned position of chief of the army staff to protect his actions such as a Provisional Constitution Order used to sack the judges.
But parliamentary sources said the issue might not be taken very far as there had been no change in the text of the members’ oath, which they will read out together in following the words of the speaker.
Meanwhile, security arrangements in Islamabad have been tightened to guard against any terrorist attacks on the occasion of the assembly’s inauguration, particularly after Saturday’s bomb attack on a restaurant popular with foreigners that killed a Turkish woman and wounded more than a dozen others.
The capital’s Constitution Avenue, on which the parliament house is located, was declared a “red zone”, barred for unauthorised or uninvited people.