A MOMENTOUS DAY: •Bilawal watches NA proceedings with tears in eyes •Gilani’s rainbow coalition gets 264 votes •Executive complies with order to release judges
ISLAMABAD, March 24: The new National Assembly on Monday elected Makhdoom Yusuf Raza Gilani prime minister by more than two-thirds majority to put a rainbow coalition of President Pervez Musharraf’s opponents in power, which the new leader used immediately to order the release of deposed judges of superior courts kept under detention for over four and a half months.
A noisy show of people’s power brought some disorder to a special session of the only eight-day-old lower house that saw the blossoming of the coalition of five parties of different hues providing a political match to early spring flowers blooming all around Islamabad.
Slogans remembering the assassinated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto and denouncing President Musharraf for eight and half years of his iron-fisted rule interrupted the proceedings after PPP nominee and joint coalition candidate Gilani defeated the candidate of an opposition alliance of the former ruling coalition, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, by 264 votes to 42 from the 334 present members of the 342-seat house.
Nearly 20 lawmakers were absent from the vote held by division, three present members abstained from voting while other seats remain vacant owing to results stayed by courts or awaited by-elections.
But the coalition improved its support from the 249 and 246 votes polled by its speaker and deputy speaker, respectively, in the election for the two offices held on March 19, mainly because of the unconditional support by 25-seat Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) while remaining in the opposition led by formerly ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
The packed chamber resounded with repeated slogans of “Go Musharraf go”, “Jiay Bhutto” and “Bibi (Benazir Bhutto) zinda hai” (Bibi is alive) raised mainly from the visitors’ galleries and joined by coalition members of the house in breakdown of order that the house management was found wanting to control.
PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari watched the proceedings from the Prime Minister’s Gallery, sometimes with tears in his eyes.
After the vote result was announced, a tearful Gilani went to Bilawal to shake his hand as did many other members amid “Jiay Bhutto” and “Bibi Zinda Hai” slogans from the galleries.
ORDER SEEMS HEEDED: Mr Gilani’s order for the release of judges, including deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and some of his colleagues confined at their official homes in a nearby Judges’ Colony, came as a big surprise as it was issued before his scheduled formal induction as prime minister on Tuesday when President Musharraf will administer him an oath of office.
“I order the immediate release of detained judges of the judiciary,” Mr Gilani said, to be greeted by a standing ovation and desk-thumping from members and slogan-chanting from both the house and the galleries. But the move left many people wondering whether the administration of caretaker prime minister Mohammedmian Soomro, or the president, would uphold the word of a prime minister-elect who has yet to assume office.
However, the authorities seemed willing to comply as, shortly after Mr Gilani’s speech, police did not stop people from visiting the judges and Justice Chaudhry appeared from the balcony of his house for the first time after his deposition on Nov 3, 2007, to briefly address a crowd of activists and well-wishers and seemed receptive to prime minister-elect’s counsel for pursuing the judiciary’s cause now through parliament rather than agitation.
About 60 judges of the Supreme Court and four provincial high courts lost their jobs for refusing or not being invited to take a fresh oath under a Provisional Constitution Order the president decreed after proclaiming an extra-constitutional state of emergency in his then capacity as army chief mainly to block challenges to his candidacy for a new five-year term.
The government has been denying these judges were detained, but many of them and their families were not allowed to move out of their barricaded homes.
MANY HUES: Mr Gilani, whose coalition consists of five parties of different hues and views ranging from self-proclaimed social democrats to fundamentalists and nationalists, said he would make a policy statement after taking a mandatory vote of confidence from the house in another session to be called later and give a programme for his government’s first 100 days after consulting allies to pursue his agenda as what he called “servant of the people” rather than a ruler.
He said the priorities of his government, whose cabinet is yet to be announced, would include tackling the prevalent high prices and what he called economic crisis and strengthening parliament and judiciary and called for cooperation from all parties in the task.
But he asked the house to pass, in the beginning, resolutions to demand a United Nations inquiry into Ms Bhutto’s Dec 27 assassination, offer apologies to the Pakistani people for the “judicial murder” of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, and endorse the March 9 Murree Declaration signed by PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif for the restoration the judges sacked under President Musharraf’s controversial Nov 3 emergency and a Charter of Democracy signed by Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif in London in May 2006.
The coalition consists of the election victor PPP, which calls itself social democratic, its former arch-rival right-of-centre PML-N, Pukhtun nationalist Awami National Party and Islamic fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. Urban Sindh’s MQM, which is still out of the coalition, is ethnic-based but seeks a nationwide outreach.
Though the prime minister’s tenure is for five years, the PPP is yet to come out with a clear statement whether it would like Mr Gilani to serve the full term or vacate the office for Mr Zadari after the party co-chairman is elected as the house member in a by-election to qualify for the position.
Hours before Monday’s vote, Mr Gilani went to PPP vice-chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim in an apparent move to pacify him after Mr Zardari sidelined the party’s most senior parliamentarian in the prime ministerial race.