Politics in the country was sent on yet another major tailspin on Monday as some of the government’s trusted allies, the MQM among them, threatened to vote against the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and the main opposition PML-N launched a new tirade on the issue, forcing the beleaguered President, Asif Ali Zardari to succumb to the pressure and agree against presenting the ‘corruption laundering’ bill before the parliament.
The decision was taken by the president after consulting some of his close aides, soon after the meeting of the ruling parliamentary alliance, and keeping in mind the mood in the National Assembly, particularly that of his allies, and adverse reaction of some major players in the country’s politics, particularly the army’s top command.
Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar announced late in the night that following a meeting of the parliamentary party of the ruling coalition, it was decided not to present the controversial NRO bill before the parliament. He did not say what might become of the NRO, and the cases withdrawn under the controversial ordinance, if it was not passed and turned into an act by the parliament.
But it was quite clear that after assessing the prevailing situation, and the opposition by a majority of the National Assembly members, including some of his allies like the MQM, the president was left with no choice but to abandon the move to table the bill.
This was yet another defeat, or retreat, of the president on a series of controversial moves since coming into power. Earlier, the president had to backtrack on a number of issues, the last being that of restoration of judges, and had to eat the humble pie when a long march instigated by lawyers and supported by the main opposition parties, forced him to accept the restoration of the chief justice and other judges dismissed by the former military ruler, Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf.
The latest crisis over the NRO was also of the ruling party’s own making, and its mishandling in getting it bulldozed at the standing committee level. As the situation took a dramatic turn late in the night, the president looked increasingly weak, but perhaps managed to survive at the risk of leaving the cases of corruption against him open to judicial review.
The chances of tabling the NRO — in its amended and more controversial form — before the National Assembly evaporated following the day’s events during which a number of government allies added their voice to the opposition’s outcry against a law that aims at whitewashing the charges of corruption against many politicians, and even their relatives and close associates.
What added to speculations about the anti-NRO debate was the timing of a meeting of Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani which, although officially described as an interaction on the Waziristan operation, created an impression as if it was aimed at discussing the situation arising out of the NRO controversy.
First it was Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who after remaining former president General Musharraf’s main ally and beneficiary for nearly eight years, declared his party’s opposition to the corruption laundering bill. It was soon followed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who, in the presence of some of his top party leaders, declared at a news conference that the PML-N would oppose the bill tooth and nail.
But the real bombshell came in the form of an announcement by MQM’s self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain. First indirectly, and then through a television interview, he not only opposed the NRO, but also indicated that the matter could be resolved by a change or ‘sacrifice’ at the top.
And though some of the MQM members in parliament later took pains to explain that Altaf Hussain never asked or advised the president to resign, in at least one television interview the MQM leader clearly stated that for the sake of the country and democracy ‘Mr Zardari and a few others in the party should offer a grand sacrifice’.
The day-long developments in Islamabad, including the meeting of the army chief with Prime Minister Gilani, had a direct impact on the mood inside the National Assembly. As the session began, most members of the ruling PPP were seen in a state of depression. A majority of the back-benchers were off colour.
In the front row, where ministers usually sit, President Zardari’s close aide Rukhsana Bangash was busy whispering with Babar Awan and Naveed Qamar, apparently discussing the latest developments and their possible repercussions.
At the other end of the front row another of president’s media managers, Fauzia Wahab, was trying to woo MQM’s Farooq Sattar and Babar Ghauri, with none of them looking much interested in whatever she was trying to say. A couple of back-benchers told Dawn they were not sure what was about to hit them, and how they should act in the face of such a strong campaign against the legislation.
Later, during a fiery speech by leader of Opposition Chaudhry Nisar, and a rather loose remark by Speaker Fehmida Mirza, further vitiated the atmosphere, giving the opposition an excuse to stage a walkout.
In a bizarre turn of events they were joined in by PML-Q, the party created by Gen Musharraf, whose parliamentary leader Chaudhry Pervez Elahi too announced their opposition to the NRO. The ordinance was promulgated when they were in power.
In the end it was Prime Minister Gilani who defused the tension somewhat by announcing that instead of railroading the NRO, he would like to evolve a consensus in the house as he had done in the past.
Most people in the press gallery were convinced that in a situation where the president was increasingly getting isolated, the prime minister was trying to project himself as a real democrat and a man for whom the parliament was above everything.
Seasoned observers of parliamentary politics say if the 25-strong MQM bloc and a section of the 16 independents, particularly those from the Fata region, turn against the PPP on the NRO issue, the PPP with its 124 members and a few supporters from the ANP, JUI-F and a couple of independents was not in a position to get the bill passed in a house of 342.
These observers believe that if the campaign against the NRO continued there was a strong possibility that a few other allies may also part ways, and a number of PPP members may prefer to abstain or disappear at the time of voting. This could be a huge embarrassment for the government, and may prove that it does not have a majority.
Those who believe in doomsday scenario were of the view that the countdown for the present set-up has begun. But a few pragmatic analysts said it would not be easy to remove or bypass the president through constitutional means. And according to them, it may at best result in yet another compromise – NRO in a heavily diluted form and the president making a public pledge to do away with his powers that make him stronger than the parliament.
However, most observers agree that the coming days and weeks will be crucial for the health of the democratic system in the country.
Party position in the National Assembly
PML-Q (including 2
BNP (A) 1
PPP (Sherpao) 1
Independent (including Fata members) 16
(In the house of 342 five seats are vacant)