The numbers game

January 23, 2022

The government flaunts its success in getting two bills approved from the National Assembly

The numbers game

The parliamentary opposition faced another setback in the National Assembly when the treasury managed to get two controversial bills passed by the lower house. The success was a great boost to the morale for Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government.

The latest session of the National Assembly took place amidst rumours about Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) having struck a deal for the safe return of Nawaz Sharif in return for the passage of the controversial the Finance (Supplementary) Bill, also known as the mini budget, and the State Bank of Pakistan (Amendment) Bill 2021.

The opposition once again presented a joint front. PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif had earlier convened a meeting of the opposition parties that was also attended by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Almost 10 percent of the National Assembly members, 16 from the opposition and 18 from the treasury were absent for various reasons. The government’s allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), had earlier expressed serious reservations about the mini budget. The government was able, however, to appease its allies and succeeded in getting the bills passed. The opposition complained that Speaker Asad Qaiser had ignored several rules and parliamentary conventions.

This was another defeat for the opposition. Several PML-N leaders had been claiming that nearly 25 MNAs from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) were in contact with them and had requested to be accepted into the party. Had this been so, the session presented an ideal opportunity to the opposition to show its strength by having these alleged PTI dissidents vote against the controversial bills.

PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz, who is now the League’s face for the masses, also claimed that PM Khan’s days in the Prime Minister’s House were numbered. She sought to give the impression that he might be ousted any moment. However, the proceedings of the recent session of the National Assembly tell a different story. It was perhaps one of the longest days in recent parliamentary history of Pakistan and perhaps the longest day for the prime minister in the parliament, too.

There can be no doubt that several PTI MNAs as well many leaders of the allied parties including the MQM, the GDA and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid had serious reservations against the Finance (Supplementary) Bill, believing that this further burden the masses. They had taken up these concerns with the prime minister and told him that the government’s popularity would plunge as a result. Some of them said that they would not be able to go to their constituencies after the bill was passed. But Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, who has to get a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told them that there was no way out. The only way to revive the $6 billion IMF programme was to agree to its conditions.

Had the government failed to fulfil the two major conditions of the IMF: getting parliamentary approval for the Finance (Supplementary) Bill and the SBP(Amendment) Bill, the IMF might have sought a fresh round of negotiations on the basis of the latest data (up to December 31).

The review meeting of the IMF executive to decide about the package had been scheduled for January 12. However, the government of Pakistan submitted a request that the meeting be deferred until the end of January. The request was accepted by the IMF.

The MQM did propose some amendments to the bill. Ultimately, its members withdrew the amendments, stating that Finance Minister Tarin had addressed their reservations.

The numbers game

The approval of the Finance Supplementary Bill can be considered a success for the treasury in the parliament. In terms of grassroots politics, it will only add to the political hardship for the PTI over the coming days when the second phase of the local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Local Government Elections in the Punjab are to be held.

The GDA and the PML-Q did not propose any concrete amendments. However, they participated in shouting ‘aye’ and ‘no’ like other MNAs from the treasury and the opposition who were there only to repeat these words on the instructions of their parties.

The bill about autonomy of the State Bank of Pakistan was also crucial for the government as well as for the opposition. After an uproar in the house, the treasury got it approved despite several of its members not being in its favour. A couple of them had shared their reservations with this scribe in off-the0-record conversations.

The approval of the Finance (Supplementary) Bill can be considered a success for the treasury in terms of a parliamentary victory. In terms of grassroots politics, however, it will further add to the hardship of the PTI in the coming days when the second phase of local bodies’ elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and local government elections in the Punjab will be held.

For the opposition benches in the National Assembly, it was another frustrating day. The opposition parties later accused the speaker and ‘hidden hands’ for the approval of the controversial bills.

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi stated, “Dozens of MNAs from the PTI wanted to abstain from the process and were reluctant to attend the session. Special ‘phone calls’ forced them to attend the session and vote in favour of the bills against the call of their conscience.” Ahsan Iqbal said, “Speaker Asad Qaiser bulldozed the rules and violated parliamentary conventions to help the government get the bill passed.”

The opposition lawmakers had demanded a discussion on the recommendations forwarded by the Senate. Ahsan Iqbal said that it was an insult to the Senate that its recommendations were not discussed in the house. The amendments moved by the opposition were rejected in a voice vote.

During the session, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said that the amendment he had introduced concerned taxes on crude oil and imports. “My question to the finance minister is whether they have accepted this. He himself said that they are withdrawing some of the taxes. Has the finance minister an issue with the fact that it mentioned his name and those of Shazia Marri and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf? What was the harm in it being accepted?” Bilawal added that Tarin had stated that past governments had made matters worse even though he himself had previously served as the country’s finance minister. Tarin responded that the IMF had called for a value-added tax when he had previously served as finance minister. He also emphasised the need for documenting the economy saying that people’s incomes were not being taxed because they didn’t fall under the tax net. He said that some of the taxes in the mini-budget had been removed. He said that this was about “documentation, not taxes”.

The opposition demanded that a physical vote count be taken for its amendments. However, the speaker refused citing Rule 29 of the Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly. The speaker later ordered a physical count on the amendments moved by PPP’s Shazia Marri. 168 lawmakers voted against it and 150 in favour of it.

Interestingly, the PML-N, the leading component of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the PPP, had indicated that they might move a no-confidence motion against the speaker. They have yet to do anything in this regard.

Likewise, both these parties have spoken about an in-house change in the Punjab and in the National Assembly. Again nothing practical has been done in this regard.

The PPP has announced a long march in February with a pledge to oust the PM from power. The PDM has announced a long march on the occasion of Pakistan Day on March 23 in Islamabad where a parade is held to celebrate the day. The purpose of the PDM’s long march is the same. They too want to get rid of Imran Khan. The only constitutional way to replace a PM is to table a no-confidence motion. This option seems less likely to be taken given that the opposition is unable to block the passage of even unpopular legislation.

One interesting aspect the opposition parties missed was a question about the rising government expenditure during the last six months. The government has levied more taxes on the people but the opposition did not question the rising government expenditure. It is hoped that some opposition members will ask the question in a future session.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of   journalism and   analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

The numbers game