Opposition’s blitzkrieg unnerves govt
MUZAFFARABAD / ISLAMABAD: Opposition parties fired a broadside at the government in parliament on Monday before staging walkouts from both houses saying they would boycott the proceedings until the prime minister showed up to defend his children against allegations in the Panama leaks that they had secreted
their money in offshore companies.
The opposition’s move was calculated and premeditated. Before going into the sessions of the National Assembly and the Senate, likeminded opposition parties had had meetings where they decided to reiterate their demand over the Panama leaks in the two houses and then stage walkouts.
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The government knew what the opposition had up its sleeves. And accordingly treasury lawmakers had brainstormed their strategy on how to give the opposition a taste of its own medicine which, in the end, did not work out for them.
The opposition parties in the lower house of parliament met at the chamber of PPP’s senior parliamentarian Khursheed Shah around noon to discuss how to give the government a tough time on the Panama leaks. They studied different proposals before agreeing to press for a debate on an adjournment motion moved by Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
Accordingly when the house convened, Shah stood in his seat in the middle of the Question Hour and started speaking on the Panama leaks. The crux of his speech was “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should come to the house to clarify his family’s position on the issue”.
Speaker Ayaz Sadiq interrupted Shah to ask if he wanted him to suspend the Question Hour and open the house for debate. “You can do that because this [Panama leaks] issue is more important,” replied Shah. The speaker did not suspend the session and allowed Shah and PTI parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi to speak on the issue.
Referring to Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, Shah said allegations in the Panama Papers were not levelled by local media or a Pakistani citizen. “Britain’s prime minister did not call press conferences nor did he organise public rallies [after his name appeared in the Panama Papers]. Instead David Cameron reached out to parliament to clear his name.”
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According to the Panama Papers, three scions of the Sharif family were among hundreds of world politicians, businessmen and showbiz stars who had offshore holdings in tax havens. Like elsewhere in the world, the revelations triggered a political storm in Pakistan prompting calls from opposition parties for the prime minister to step down.
Premier Nawaz, however, downplayed the public clamour and instead equated the opposition parties with terrorists. “The prime minister may call us whatever he wants, but only this august house can resolve the issue and save him,” Shah said.
PTI’s Qureshi said that once his party was ‘detracted from parliament’, “but when we turned to the house the prime minister showed us his back”. He was referring to PTI’s marathon sit-in in the capital in August 2015 when it attempted to seek an out-of-parliament solution to a row over allegations that the PML-N had rigged the 2013 elections. Qureshi, who spoke for around 20 minutes, repeatedly called on the prime minister to show up in the house to defend his family against the allegations in the Panama leaks.
The opposition has proposed terms of reference (ToRs) for a judicial inquiry ordered by Premier Nawaz into Panama Papers claims that dozens of Pakistani politicians and businessmen had offshore holdings. However, the government has rejected the opposition’s ToRs as ‘unconstitutional, mala fide and biased’.
Shah hinted that the opposition could take back its ToRs if the prime minister came to the house and convinced them that his children had done nothing wrong or illegal. When Shah and Qureshi were speaking, Law Minister Zahid Hamid conferred with PML-N MNA Daniyal Aziz – perhaps asking him to prepare for a befitting rejoinder. As soon as Qureshi wrapped up his speech, Speaker Ayaz Sadiq asked Aziz to speak from the treasury side.
Shah was quick to frustrate the move. “This is not acceptable. Speeches from the treasury will mean we also reply and the result will be a useless debate,” he said. “Since the prime minister is not present in the house, the opposition also does not need to be here,” he added. “We’re leaving the house until the prime minister shows up.”
Subsequently, the opposition lawmakers walked out of the house. In their absence two ordinances, a bill and a motion were introduced in the assembly. When efforts to bring back the opposition MPs failed, the house was adjourned to reconvene Tuesday morning.
The story of the Senate session was no different. As soon as the upper house of parliament convened, Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the opposition in the Senate, stood up in his chair to lead the assault on the government. He said the prime minister was hiding instead of presenting himself before the house to resolve the issue which has triggered a public outcry.
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“We will continue to boycott the proceedings unless the prime minister shows up in the house because his absence is affecting the decorum of this august house,” Ahsan said in the upper house of parliament where the opposition enjoys numerical superiority over the treasury.
He underscored that the opposition did not doubt the integrity of the prime minister of his children. However, he added that while Balochistan’s former finance secretary could be arrested for secreting around Rs730 million, the prime minister’s sons were roaming free after admitting to secreting Rs7 billion.
After his brief speech, Ahsan, along with other opposition senators barring BNP-M’s Jehanzeb Jamaldini staged a walkout from the house. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani sent the leader of the house, Raja Zafarul Haq, to bring back the boycotters, but only a few opposition MPs returned. A few minutes later they again walked out of the proceedings on the same issue, leaving two-thirds of the agenda unaddressed.
In a scathing rejoinder to the opposition, PML-N Senator Mushahidullah Khan quoted the prime minister repeatedly saying that his children would defend themselves at every legal forum.
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“Are offshore companies illegal? Half the business of the world is running on offshore companies. Will a decision against anyone be taken in parliament or at a legal forum? Had there been corruption, a judicial commission would not have been formed,” he argued.
Moreover, Khan said neither the prime minister’s nor any of his cabinet minister’s name has figured in the Panama Papers. “On the other hand, several opposition politicians, including Zulfiqar Bokhari, Aleem Khan, Jahangir Tareen, Rehman Malik and Parvez Ashraf, have been named in the Panama Papers,” he said.