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A landmark amid noise and scuffles

June 01, 2012

ISLAMABAD, June 1: It was amid a noisy opposition protest and scuffles, called “shameful” by the National Assembly speaker, that an embattled Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reached a milestone on Friday of presenting all the five budgets of his office’s unfinished tenure.

But, as expected, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the largest opposition party in parliament, was isolated in the protest that it said it would continue throughout the budget session, though not supported by smaller opposition parties.

“This is shameful … what you want to show to the world,” Speaker Fehmida Mirza remarked on her mike as scuffles broke after the protesters stormed the steps of the dais and blocked a front row of the treasury benches immediately after Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh began his budget speech to the National Assembly.

But her repeated calls directly asking the PML-N legislators to observe discipline were responded by more slogan-chanting, mainly targeting the prime minister and throwing of torn papers at or towards the treasury benches.

But there were no slogans against the speaker although the PML-N had previously voiced its anger and gone to the Supreme Court against her ruling last week that cleared the prime minister from attracting disqualification as a member of the house because of his conviction by a Supreme Court bench in late April for contempt of court and having gone through a symbolic sentence of “imprisonment till the rising of the court”.

Mr Gilani, who on Friday became the first prime minister in Pakistan’s chequered political history to present all the five budgets of his tenure, showed no signs of unease as he sat at his desk throughout the budget speech as protesters near him shouted slogans or displayed placards -- some targeting him and his two sons in politics together.

All previous prime ministers had their tenures curtailed by controversial dismissals or military coups from the early years of Pakistan to the last military-led government of Gen Pervez Musharraf.

A lot of physically robust lawmakers of the Pakistan People’s Party, who seemed to have outnumbered the shouting crowd occupying the area before the dais, stood as a protective wall in front of Mr Gilani and the finance minister and were able to push away the protesters who repeatedly chanted “go Gilani, go” and carried anti-government placards.

The finance minister braved all this to mark what he called an “historic occasion” of an elected government presenting its fifth budget and to finish his speech in Urdu, lasting about 25 minutes, without a stop.

Mr Shaikh, whose budget speech in the National Assembly last year was also marked by a similar but milder opposition protest, faced only a PML-N walkout when he later tabled the budget documents in the Senate, which will only formulate non-binding recommendations on the budget to be considered by the lower house.

“This house is not authorised to pass this fraudulent document,” PML-N’s Senator Zafar Ali Shah remarked before his party senators quietly walked out of the upper house.

Javed Iqbal Warraich, a PPP member from Rahimyar Khan district, got a torn waistcoat in a National Assembly scuffle earlier that also seemed to involve PML-N’s Mohammad Safdar, a son-in-law of PML-N president Nawaz Sharif elected from Rawalpindi district. But soon Mr Safdar, a former army captain, appeared to be on the receiving end, getting some slaps on his face.

Some cabinet members, including PPP chief whip and Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah and Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, continuously pleaded with the protesters to remain away from the treasury benches, though with little success.

Several PML-N female members came over to the ruling coalition benches carrying their placards, some of which were snatched and torn by PPP Minister for Services and Regulation Firdaus Ashiq Awan.

It was then that senior PML-N parliamentarian Tehmina Daultana, who has kept a low profile in recent months, persuaded her parry’s female members to return to their side of aisle.

For unknown reasons, Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan made a belated appearance in the National Assembly at the fag-end of the PML-N show, although he later told reporters that his party would continue to register its protest during future sittings of the session and on the streets.

Although his speech was hardly audible without the aid of earphones fitted to the house sound system, the finance minister’s announcements of budgetary measures like tax relief and salary increases were greeted with desk-thumping by members of the PPP and its coalition allies -- who together form more than two-third majorities in both 342-seat National Assembly and 104-seat Senate.

And lastly there was a round of slogans in support of the prime minister as he left the house after the budget speech before the house was adjourned until 5pm on Monday, when the budget debate is to begin in a session that is due to last till June 22.

The Senate session is scheduled until June 14 -- providing it just enough time to formulate its recommendations, which could be accommodated by the National Assembly in passing the budget.