FeaturedNationalVolume 14 Issue # 14

A House in disorder

The National Assembly in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government has not passed a single law since its inception. The opposition members do not spare any chance to protest, but the treasury members are more troublesome as they incite them with their provocative speeches.

It is the responsibility of the government to run the affairs of the House smoothly. It needs the help of the opposition to pass laws, but its attitude is not serious. First, Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif was not acceptable to it, because he faces corruption charges, though the Lahore High Court has granted bail to him. Now, the arrest of Sindh Assembly Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani is a source of confrontation between the government and the opposition. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), two archrivals in the past, are seen defending leaders of each other in corruption cases. “It is an attack on the federating unit. Our stance will be the same if the speaker of any assembly is arrested,” said former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in his speech in the National Assembly after the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had arrested Siraj Durrani. He was arrested from a hotel in Islamabad. According to NAB officials, Durrani faces an inquiry for accumulating assets beyond his known sources of income as well as allegations that he had embezzled public funds. They waited for Durrani to leave Sindh to arrest him as he was escorted by a sizable security team in his home province and the NAB feared a confrontation would turn violent.

In his reaction, PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari said the PTI-led government had been given enough time and warned his party would launch a movement against the rulers along with the PML-N. Addressing a press conference, he claimed the government had isolated Pakistan in the world. “Enough is enough. We will launch a movement against the government along with other parties, including the PML-N. In the summer, you might have to sell your car to pay electricity bills if the government continues with its policies,” he said. To a question, he said the PPP would also support Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s anti-government movement. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari slammed Durrani’s arrest, saying that his party would not allow the “benaami wazeer-e-azam” (so-called Prime Minister) to establish a beywardi aamriat (dictatorship without uniform). “Attack on the speaker of a federating unit is unacceptable. An undemocratic attempt to dislodge the Sindh government failed before and will fail again. Independent institutions shouldn’t unwittingly be part of political engineering,” he said on Twitter.

Earlier, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif’s appointment as Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Chairman was a bone of contention between the government and the opposition. The government demanded he resign as he is facing corruption charges. However, the Lahore High Court has accepted his bail in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme and Ramzan Sugar Mills cases. He was taken into custody by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with the Ashiana Housing case in October 5, 2018. He was charged with misuse of authority by unlawfully assuming powers of the board of directors of the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC), and awarding a contract to an ineligible proxy firm that resulted in the failure of the housing scheme. Commenting on the bail to Shahbaz Sharif, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said: “It is a revelation that Shahbaz Sharif has been released. When was he ever imprisoned?” He said the system in Pakistan is such that a thief, who steals chickens, is imprisoned but “if you steal Rs1500b, then your bail is granted within 90 days and you come home”. Of the 90 days, Shahbaz Sharif spent 70 days in the Minister’s Enclave, with a Rangers protocol.

Later, a meeting of the cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan, expressed dissatisfaction over the LHC decision of granting bail to Shahbaz Sharif in two cases and urged the NAB to file an appeal against it. The cabinet also stressed the need to revamp the accountability system, so that influential and powerful people should also be made accountable for their deeds. The NAB laws continue to fuel tensions in the National Assembly. Whenever its member is arrested, the opposition objects to the “draconian laws,” while the government blames the opposition for not amending the law when it was in power for 10 years. The government believes the NAB laws should be amended to make them more effective.

Analysts say the PTI had come to power on the promises of fixing the long-standing structural issues plaguing governance, federation and economy and it cannot afford to get bogged down in confrontation with the opposition. Cabinet ministers are on a warpath with the opposition and the government has not been able to get the proposed economic reforms package passed. The National Assembly session had to be prorogued sine die before a debate on the package could even start. The federal government’s relationship with Sindh, the only province ruled by an opposition party, is deteriorating after rumours of attempts to weaken the provincial administration. The anti-graft rhetoric of the government is marred by allegations of political vendetta. It has united a fractured opposition which is expected to give a tough time to the government. It is feared that Prime Minister Imran Khan will face difficulties in the enactment of policies of his government, which has a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly.

The government plans to create 10 million new jobs, lift millions out of abject poverty and build five million houses in its five-year term. It depends on the revival of the economy and exports. It is not possible if the government continues to waste time in its meaningless confrontation with the opposition. Prime Minister Imran Khan should ask his team to cool down the situation and concentrate on the economic revival of the country to provide relief to the common man.