Pakistan splitting governance on party lines

Pakistan splitting governance on party lines

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In a democracy anywhere in the world, dates set aside for debate and approval of the annual Budget are considered sacrosanct and both ruling and opposition parties look forward to expressing their views on the government’s most important policy document.  Something unprecedented however, happened in the largest Provincial Assembly of Pakistan right on the day of the annual Budget presentation: The speaker didn’t allow the budget to be presented for two consecutive days.

The wrangling between the Speaker and the opposition on one side and the ruling party on the other continued for about 6 hours on the appointed day for budget presentation earlier this month. The key point of contention was the insistence of the Speaker and the Opposition that the two top bureaucrats of the province should come before the house and apologise for the alleged excesses committed during an opposition protest march about 3 weeks earlier. That night, the budget could not be presented and the Speaker adjourned the sitting at around 11 pm to meet again at 1 pm the next day. A dubious history was made!

The sitting on the next day was delayed even longer as the Speaker kept adjourning. Finally, when the Speaker asked the Minister in-charge to present the budget at 9 pm, the government’s patience had already run out. The Governor of Punjab, using his constitutional powers under Article 109, prorogued the on-going Assembly Session. With an almost simultaneous order, the Governor summoned the fresh Budget session of the Assembly the next day but not in the Assembly Building. It was instead in a nearby public building – Aiwan-e-Iqbal.

The only legitimate assembly session is the one summoned by the Governor, and  the other session has no legal basis. This is how Punjab came to earn the dubious distinction of having two provincial assemblies at the same time.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The Constitution empowers the Governor to not only determine the date and time of the session but the venue as well. When the Session commenced at Aiwan-e-Iqbal the next day, the speaker was not present and the Deputy Speaker who is an ally of the ruling party became the natural and legal choice to preside over the session. This made the running of the session smooth for the government. Had the Speaker decided to turn up at the Aiwan e Iqbal session, it would have been impossible to deny him the chair and then the Speaker could steer the session the way he wanted to, as authorized by the rules. The speaker, however, decided to continue his own version of the Assembly session in the Assembly Building where only opposition members were present. According to most legal interpretations the only lawful assembly session is the one summoned by the Governor and the other session has no legal basis. This is how Punjab came to earn the dubious distinction of having two provincial assemblies at the same time.

In between the two proclamations of the Governor - one to prorogue the 40th session and the other to summon the 41st – the Governor also promulgated an ordinance which limited the powers of the Assembly Secretary and repealed the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Act, 2021 which stripped the Speaker of the powers to punish civil servants.

The ‘Two-Assemblies’ and associated events are the extension of an electoral contest between the PML-N’s Hamza Shehbaz Sharif and PTI-backed Chaudhry Pervez Elahi for the coveted position of Chief Minister of the largest province of the country. In a violence-ridden sitting of the Assembly on 16th April, Hamza Shahbaz had won the election with the help of 25 members of the PTI who were later declared defected and made to lose their seats in the assembly. While the scenario of ‘two assemblies’ is quite embarrassing for the legislators and their leadership, and damaging to the fragile democracy and governance of the province and the country, the two assemblies continue to hold their respective meetings pending the final adjudication by the courts to pass judgment about the legality or otherwise of the sessions.

It is customary in a democracy that both ruling party and opposition, despite all differences, sit under one roof,  though divided by an aisle, and debate even the most contentious issues. It never happens that each party decides to convene its own separate meeting in a separate venue. One hopes that the assembly members and their leaders realise the folly of having the current two assemblies sooner than later.

— Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.

Twitter: @ABMPildat

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