PRESS GALLERY: For whom does the bell toll?
By Rana Qaisar
ISLAMABAD: It was almost a repeat of the humiliating defeat the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had faced in the National Assembly on Thursday when the opposition parties rejected a treasury-sponsored bill with a majority vote. But this time Parliamentary Affairs Minister Dr Sher Afgan Niazi managed to avoid a similar defeat in the Senate on Friday when, seeing that the government was short of numbers, he did not move a motion to seek suspension of rules for tabling a bill to amend the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority Ordinance 2002.
The opposition parties, which were fully in command of the situation to defeat the bill with a majority vote, pressed Dr Niazi to move the motion but Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro timely chipped in to rescue the quorum-hit government of Shaukat Aziz. He adjourned the house amid opposition’s uproar to meet again on Monday soon after the presentation of the 2005-06 federal budget, which Asfandyar Wali and Sanaullah Baloch termed as the third consecutive “unconstitutional budget” coming without the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award.
Dr Niazi, contrary to what he had agreed with the opposition parties, wanted to get the bill through after the Question Hour with a view that he might not get it passed as the debate on law and order situation could turn unruly and the chairman might adjourn the house without taking up the official business. The opposition dictated its terms in the Senate and the government was obliged to follow the majority with a fear of being voted out the way it had happened in the National Assembly a day before. When Raza Rabbani threw a challenge to Dr Niazi to move the bill, he realized that the government was short in number than the opposition and moved here and there in panic to have the required number of government members in the house but all his efforts ended in vain as he could not get the required number of members despite calling the senators (ministers), who were sitting in the National Assembly.
It never happened in the past that the sitting government had to face such an embarrassing situation, particularly in the budget session of parliament. Rejection of a government-sponsored bill, as it had happened in the National Assembly on Thursday, by a majority vote of the opposition is, politically speaking, a clear no-confidence in the prime minister as it reflects his inability to run parliament and get the government business through.
Had such a situation happened in a civilized democracy, it would have caused a major political crisis and the head of the government would have possibly resigned or had sought a fresh vote of confidence. But in “true democracies” like ours, even the minister for parliamentary affairs or the chief whip of the ruling party would not resign, what to talk of the prime minister, who does not care whether the quorum is complete or not as it’s not his responsibility to run this show of genuine democracy the general-president is presenting to the world.
If such a situation continues and the government fails to maintain quorum during the discussion on the budget, there is a possibility that the opposition might get its cut motion(s) passed leaving the general-president with no other option but to pack-up this façade of democracy. Though such a situation had happened last year and the speaker managed it, as the opposition parties had not taken a strong position, this time there would be no question of their sparing the government, which already had people within to ditch it any time for pursuing their own political ambitions.
The National Assembly clearly depicted a gloomy political scenario. Maybe it was because the most of the ruling party members were busy hosting receptions for LK Advani in Lahore, but their absence in such a big number on the second consecutive day is an indication of lack of coordination between the coalition partners who seem to be moving in different directions without a common strategy to run the government and parliament. After the Question Hour, a lot of time was wasted in points of orders and when the speaker allowed a debate on Karachi’s law and order situation, he decided to continue with it after the break for the Juma prayer.
But the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) demonstrated a rare show of unity against a common rival – the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which they said had destroyed peace in the city and returned it to the times when terrorism was rule of the day there. After Farhatullah Babar showed a newspaper photograph in the Senate, pointing out the tyranny of Rangers, Khurshid Shah also raised this issue in the National Assembly.
This was also an opportune time for the opposition as the government had lacked quorum. So why miss another opportunity to embarrass the government for the second day in a row. Khurshid Shah pointed out the quorum and this landed the speaker again in a situation where he could not bail out the government, as hardly thirty treasury members were present in the house. Though the government tried to avoid adjournment of the house for lack of quorum, it failed to convince the PPPP and MMA, who were determined not to let the MQM members speak on Karachi situation.
Expecting that the treasury members might come to the house, the speaker first called for a head-count and when he was told that the quorum was not complete he asked for ringing the bells for five minutes. After the bells were rung, the speaker again gave the government and the opposition some time to come to an understanding so that the debate could be completed. “We want to discuss the issues, but where is the government,” Khurshid Shah said, turning the tables on the government, and drew his attention to deserted treasury benches.
The PPPP and the MMA remained adamant in their strategy against a common rival (the MQM), who, they thought, was behind what was happening in Karachi to avert its defeat in the forthcoming local government elections. What the PPPP and Jamaat-e-Islami believe is that the MQM was creating a law and order situation in Karachi to postpone the local government elections. But the general-president “so far” seems to be determined to go ahead with his plan of continuing with the grass-roots democracy as many believe he might not, despite his desire to let this parliament be first to complete its tenure, continue with democracy at the national level where the situation now does not seem to be in his control.