ISLAMABAD: A seemingly subdued President Asif Ali Zardari scored a new political milestone on Saturday, but his record fifth address to parliament in the face of a noisy opposition protest had no big promises for an election year.
A 35-minute prepared speech, about half of which was marred by loud opposition shouting, mainly recounted what the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government did in its four difficult years and spoke little about its agenda for the last year of its term that will run out in March next year.
However, the speech included some oft-repeated promises such as to go an “extra mile” for reconciliation with Baloch dissidents, review ties with the United States in the so-called war on terror in light of parliamentary recommendations and speed up electricity generation to end power cuts, while predicting a four per cent growth of the economy in 2012 despite last year’s disastrous floods.
The event made Mr Zardari the first Pakistani president to address all the five joint sittings of a presidential tenure, though his last and fourth address on March 22, 2011, was also a record at that time.
But the opposition, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-N, seemed to have considerations of the next elections in view as it sought to steal some of the sheen of the occasion by staging its noisiest protest against President Zardari to his face before storming out of the house to boycott the remainder of the address, at which the guests included provincial governors and chief ministers, armed forces chiefs and foreign ambassadors.
The previous day, the government-allied Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) had threatened to disrupt the presidential address to protest at alleged government inaction against what it called rampant “bhatta-khori”, or extortions, in Karachi, but the party gave up its plans after being convinced that action against alleged extortionists had begun following a directive from the president.
And Saturday’s protest by the lawmakers of the PML-N, the Jamiat UIema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and some minor groups was much harsher than one at last year’s joint sitting when members of a divided opposition had only staged separate walkouts, while the previous three addresses by President Zardari had been trouble-free.
But the show was a far cry from PML-N’s rowdiest protest in a joint sitting during the address by then president Farooq Leghari when PPP lawmakers had to make a protective cordon around then prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s desk and stand in a line before the president while the protesters besieged the dais and some of them even danced and kicked desks.
It was not clear whether it was due to harsh sloganeering and booing or his recent illness that President Zardari seemed somewhat tense though he smiled at times when he spoke and when PML-N members started chanting slogans like “loot mar bund karo” (stop plundering) and “jhooth bolna bund karo” (stop telling lies) even before he began his speech.
The revolving chair on which he sat at the dais on the right side of National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, who chaired the sitting -- with new Senate Chairman Nayyar Hussain Bokhari on her left -- tumbled for some unknown reason immediately after the president rose and went to the rostrum for his speech, and was hurriedly put back in place by his two military aides-de-camp.
Repeated calls by the speaker for “order in the house” proved of no avail and at one time Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani seemed becoming restless as he was seen whispering to a couple of ministers -- one of whom was sent to dais apparently to pass on a word to the chair -- and looked askance toward opposition front benches on his right. Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan looked to other side at the time but some glances from the new Opposition Leader in the Senate, Ishaq Dar, seemed assuring Mr Gilani the show would be over soon.
After 15 minutes of shouting, which was often drowned by desk-thumping cheers by members of the ruling coalition but which made the president’s speech inaudible in the galleries, Chaudhry Nisar led the protesters out of the house after which the speech went on smoothly.
The constitutionally mandatory address marked the beginning of the present parliament’s fifth parliamentary year during which, the president said, “we will see free and fair elections”.
He described the event also as a manifestation to the world that “the march of democracy goes on” in Pakistan, that “our institutions are working” and that “together we are creating history” despite challenges inherited by the present government.
At a time when Prime Minister Gilani is facing contempt of court charges before the Supreme Court, the president had special compliments for him for his “able leadership in the house” in the beginning of the address and, at its end, voiced what he called “our unqualified appreciation for his political wisdom in handling various challenges with courage and perseverance”.
Praising the armed forces and law-enforcement agencies for their fight against militancy and terrorism, he said the government would “continue to show resolve on this issue”.
Speaking of economy, which he said had begun showing “stronger growth”, he said it “will grow by four per cent in 2012, with exports having crossed the benchmark of $25 billion, remittances from Pakistanis working abroad at $11.5 billion last year and projected to double the 2008 level this year and foreign exchange reserves reaching record $18 billion at the end of last June.
On Balochistan, he said much more than the present government’s ‘Aghaz-i-Haqooq Balochistan’ package was needed to be done to “heal the wounds of the past”, adding: “We are willing to go extra mile to engage in dialogue with our Baloch brothers.”
FOREIGN POLICY: The president called “parliamentary oversight and democratic accountability” as a new facet of the country’s foreign policy and said: “We are committed to maintaining our bilateral relations with all on the principles of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality.”
He reiterated Pakistan’s support for an “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process in Afghanistan” and while talking of normalising trade with India, said “we must also address difficult issues, including that of Jammu and Kashmir”. Calling ties with China “deeply rooted and mutually beneficial”, he said Pakistan sought to engage meaningfully with the United States after recent strains and the government looked forward to parliament’s recommendations, for which a joint session of the two houses has been called next week.
He talked highly of Pakistan’s “expanded and deepened” relations with the European Union, importance of relations with Russia, close and fraternal ties with Muslim countries and efforts to “deepen our engagement with East Asia and Latin America”.