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August 21, 2019

Enduring parliamentary gridlock reigned during govt’s first year


August 21, 2019

ISLAMABAD: Lack of even a minor desire of the government and opposition parties to break bread during the first year of the current dispensation has resulted in a lingering deadlock on key national issues.

Consequently, there has been no movement forward whatsoever on important issues like extension of military courts’ tenure to try civilian terrorists, appointment of two members of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), amendments in the harsh provisions of the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) and any kind of ordinary or essential legislation. The conflict has been so bizarre that the two sides have never even agreed on the agenda of the National Assembly sittings. The result is a complete logjam. Being “big brother”, the government has never shown even a slight inclination to have a working relationship with the opposition so that political calm prevails.

Never in Pakistan’s recent parliamentary history has so much animosity echoed between the government and opposition parties. The whole year kept resounding with clashes and war of words with no signs of even a slim abatement.

The regime’s mantra is that it can’t compromise on its mission of ruthless accountability of the corrupt and the looters. However, saner voices have often pointed out that political stability is obligatory and inevitable for economic stability at a time when Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles and continues to be burdened with heavy foreign debt.

Long time ago, the government and opposition representatives held a few rounds of dialogue on different issues but the process remained inconsequential and was severed abruptly never to be resumed any soon. The Supreme Court has ruled more than once that the physical remand period of ninety days of the accused caught by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) should be rationalised because the duration was too long, that the accountability courts, which hold their trials, should be empowered to grant bail to them, and that the plea bargain provision should be amended.

The apex court’s proposals, which, in the view of legal experts, are mandatory as there is no option but to implement them by the government and parliament, have gone unattended. These were cursorily discussed by the two sides, but the process broke down simply because of the overall tensions between them. Despite their apparent conflicting stands, they equally want to cut down the remand period but are shying of clinching an agreement.

Similarly, the negotiations were held to hammer out a consensus on the extension of the military courts’ operations, but to no avail. For the purpose, a constitutional amendment, which was earlier extended twice, was required to be revived for the third time. However, it transpired as if authorities did not need this constitutional cover any more, maybe cause of the changed environment relating to terrorism.

Thirdly, the process to fill up two vacancies of ECP members to represent Sindh and Balochistan has also been at a standstill due to the never-ending disagreement between the government and the opposition. After a lot of wrangling, the two constitutional consultees – Prime Minister Imran Khan and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif – exchange their respective preferred nominations but no consensus emerged. A bipartisan parliamentary committee, having equal representation of the government and opposition parties, which deliberated upon the names, failed to sort out the matter after three sessions.

The government then announced to approach the Supreme Court for interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions, which provide no answer to this kind of impasse, but it has not done so even after the passage of several weeks. The two ECP vacancies, which occurred in January this year, were required to be filled in forty-five days.

The incumbent chief election commissioner is going to retire in coming December. Before his superannuation, the process to choose his replacement is needed to be started as per the Constitution, but there are no indications about its initiation at an early date. The government-opposition ties are a clear hurdle. The constitutional procedure followed in the appointment of the ECP members is also to be applied by the prime minister and the opposition leader for this nomination.

On its part, the opposition has repeatedly offered cooperation to the government on various issues but the acrimony has been so deep-rooted that the two sides are unwilling to sit together and work out some kind of collaboration on a minimum agreed agenda.

The major casualty of the lasting dispute has been lawmaking by the parliament. The opposition-dominated Senate has also mostly been engaged in verbal clashes without doing the very job for which it exists. The ruling side’s numerical position in the Upper House of Parliament will considerably improve in March 2021 when election to half of the Senate will be held. Till that time, the legislation in this chamber will remain a far cry.

Despite the defeat of their no-confidence resolution against Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in the secret ballot, the opposition parties continue to have a firm grip on the Upper House and are in a comfortable position to block any government-sponsored legislation. Fearing this eventuality, the ruling coalition is not moving any substantive bill in the Senate.

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