Pakistan Politics: PMLN’s volte-face —Ijaz Hussain

Many political pundits see a break-up of the coalition. However, the PMLN may prove them wrong. Let us not forget that many in the party favour resolution of the judges’ issue through the constitutional package

The other day the National Assembly increased the strength of the Supreme Court from sixteen to twenty nine judges through the Finance Bill. The PMLN went along with it though one of its legislators, Ayaz Amir, l’enfant terrible of the party, raised objections to it.

A day after the passage of the bill, PMLN parliamentary leader, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, explained that his party would have abstained on the clause pertaining to the increase in the number of SC judges if the vote had been taken. The opposition rejected the PMLN’s explanation and asserted that it was a party to the clause on the increase of judges.

Did the PMLN make a volte-face in the matter? And will the increase solve the judges’ issue once and for all?

Examining the question of the increase, we know that from the beginning of the controversy, the PMLN was implacably opposed to retaining the PCO judges and fervently favoured the restoration of the deposed ones to their November 2, 2007 position. However, with the passage of time and interminable rounds of talks with the PPP, the PMLN realised that it would never be able to bring its coalition partner that favours the retention of the PCO judges around to its point of view.

Following the Dubai round of talks, the PMLN decided to change its position and accept the PCO judges though subsequently it explained that it would do so in an ad hoc capacity only. It compared its changed position with the taking of a bitter bill but was quick to point out that, not being permanent, the 2007 PCO judges could be easily thrown out through the screening process.

Subsequently, to move things forward, the two main coalition partners agreed to increase the number of judges from sixteen to twenty nine. They chose to do it through the Finance Bill. The finance minister disclosed that it was the veteran PMLN leader and Sharif relative, Ishaq Dar, who drafted the clause in question. Sharif later claimed that his party colleagues supported the increase without consulting him. The party secretary general seconded him by contending that PMLN parliamentarians went along with the clause in question contrary to Sharif’s instructions. The information secretary made the incredulous statement that the increase was for future needs rather than to accommodate the PCO judges. The parliamentary leader justified the decision by the need to regularise the salaries of the deposed judges who were being paid from the prime minister’s discretionary fund.

The explanation by the PMLN leadership fails to carry conviction. The fact of the matter is that whatever spin the party may put on its decision to increase, it is clear that it has changed its previous position on the PCO judges. Senior PMLN leader Khwaja Asif was brave enough to admit that his party had accepted the idea of retaining the PCO judges and increase in the number of SC judges as a result of an understanding with the PPP.

Similarly, the senior vice president Tehmina Daultana confessed that failure to support the Finance Bill would have put the PMLN on a collision course with the PPP. Again, PMLN spokesperson Siddiq-ul Farooq defended the decision by contending that the party did not have the required majority in Parliament to amend the Constitution.

Before proceeding further, a word on the modality to increase the SC judges’ strength is in order. It is the Judges Act of 1997 that specifies the number of SC judges. Therefore, if an increase or decrease in the number of judges is deemed necessary, it is to be effected through an amendment in the said Act.

However, instead of following the well-established procedure, the coalition partners decided to circumvent it by effecting the increase through the Finance Bill. This was nothing but travesty of the normal legislative procedure because both the National Assembly and the Senate were bypassed, which is a violation of the constitution.

It is noteworthy here that whereas the PPP opposes the restoration of the deposed judges through a simple resolution cum notification on the ground that it would be committing an illegality, it has gone ahead with an illegal amendment of the Judges Act through the Finance Bill.

Here the question arises as to why the PMLN made the volte-face that it did. To understand this one needs to know the policy that it has pursued so far. Following the general elections, it decided at once to become part of the coalition and support the restoration of deposed judges. In other words, it tried to sail in two boats at the same time. The approach was no different from that of the PPP, which decided to pay lip service to the dual agenda of Musharraf’s impeachment and the restoration of the deposed judges while being in bed with Musharraf.

However, the time had come for the PMLN to choose between staying in the coalition and working for the restoration of deposed judges by ousting the PCO judges. It decided on the former because staying in the coalition enjoys priority for the party over the judges’ issue, which it now regards as an albatross around its neck.

The PMLN’s decision in favour of the increase aroused strong reaction as many regarded it as a betrayal of the judges’ cause. It looked as if the political mileage that the party had gained from its stand on the issue would be squandered. That explains why a number of senior members of the PMLN immediately went into denial about their party’s changed position in the matter.

However, the Lahore High Court’s latest decision to disqualify Nawaz Sharif from contesting the NA by-elections and the observation by one of the judges that Sharif’s personal appearance before the bench could have helped dispose of the case in two or three minutes seems to have come to the party’s rescue. Following the judgement, the PMLN chief immediately denounced the PCO judges and vowed never to accept them, which seemed to rehabilitate the party’s image.

Finally, the question arises whether the increase in the SC’s strength would lead to a solution of the judges’ issue. The answer depends on the decision that the PPP and PMLN supremos take on the matter during the forthcoming parleys, especially on how to restore the judges. Analysts term these talks as a make-or-break event. Will they agree on a settlement that has eluded them for the last three months or so?

Given the diametrically opposed positions of the two parties and the PPP’s utterly rigid position on the issue, political pundits are not very optimistic about the outcome. They see a break-up of the coalition. However, the PMLN may prove them wrong. Let us not forget that many in the party favour resolution of the judges’ issue through the constitutional package. The Pakistan Bar Council may also come to the PMLN’s rescue as it is reportedly contemplating stabbing the lawyers’ movement by recommending the resolution of the issue through the parliament rather than the street.

The writer is a former dean of social sciences at the Quaid-i-Azam University. He can be reached at hussain_ijaz@hotmail.com

Source: Daily times, 2/7/2008

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