Mar 29, 2009

‘Let’s be friends once again’: Zardari

President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday all but lifted governor’s rule in Punjab in an apparent peace deal with an estranged Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) whom he offered to be ‘friends again’ after a month of bruising confrontation and conceded its right to rule the province.

In an address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Senate marking the start of a new parliamentary year amid a blooming spring, he called for ‘no further delay’ in finalising constitutional amendments to empower parliament by curtailing powers he inherited from former president Gen Pervez Musharaf.

The announcement of the decision to lift governor’s rule imposed on Feb 25 came in the president’s extempore remarks at the fag-end of a 30-minute speech whose beginning was marked by a protest walkout by PML-N’s rival Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) against alleged horse-trading in Punjab by the other to buy loyalties of provincial assembly members.

‘As we move towards a better future, I wish to announce that we shall recommend the lifting of governor’s rule in Punjab,’ the president said as he struggled to find the right words for his unwritten remarks, which actually seemed to mean that he was asking Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to recommend to him to end the 32-day-old direct federal rule in Punjab through Governor Salman Taseer.

The Feb 25 presidential order, which meant the dissolution of a year-old provincial coalition government of the PML-N and PPP, came after a Supreme Court ruling the same day disqualified PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother and provincial chief minister Shahbaz Sharif from holding any elective public office.

While both the Sharif bothers have gone to the Supreme Court for a review – one seeking restoration of his Punjab administration and the other his right to seek election to a National Assembly seat – President Zardari said the PPP, which he leads as its co-chairman, would support a PML-N candidate for chief minister ‘whoever he might be’ though it will no longer be part of a ruling coalition.

But PML-N chairman Raja Zafar Haq told Dawn his party, which emerged as the largest single party in the Punjab assembly and second largest in the National Assembly in last year’s general election, would prefer a restoration of its provincial government rather than form a new one.

That is a course that could protect Mr Shahbaz Sharif from the mischief of a controversial Musharraf-era decree that bars two-time prime ministers and chief ministers from seeking a third term.

But President Zadari made it clear the PPP would not join even a restored provincial government in a tit-for-tat to the PML-N’s departure from the PPP-led federal government after a brief association last year.

‘We shall sit in the opposition, but we shall participate on all bills and will not let down the government of Punjab and will close the door to horse-trading forever,’ he said, practically giving up PPP’s efforts to lead a new coalition in the province with the possible support of the PML-Q rather than play second fiddle to the PML-N.

’There will be no need for a forward bloc,’ he said, apparently referring to a strong ‘forward bloc’ of PML-Q members in the Punjab assembly who are supporting PML-N without joining the cabinet, sparking charges of horse-trading from PML-Q leadership.

The PPP leadership could have been happy with the PML-N embarrassment caused by the walkout by slogan-chanting PML-Q law-makers that was led by party president and newly elected senator Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and ended soon when some members of the treasury benches brought the protesters back to the house.

Mr Zardari’s off-the-cuff remarks also seemed to be scratching old wounds when he said ‘there will be no need to have another Changa Manga’, in a reference to a forest resort in Punjab where PML-N had allegedly lodged parliamentarians in a confrontation with the PPP in the 1990s to prevent the other side approaching them.

The president said the two sides could ‘still meet as friends and fellow democrats’ to take Pakistan to ‘new heights’ after the PML-N has a chief minister to its satisfaction and after all irritants between them were settled in parliament and courts of law. ‘Pakistan has many challenges. What it does not need is a challenge from within to its democracy.’

In a reference to the PML-N agitation and its crucial role in a lawyer-led ‘long march’ that led to the restoration of the remaining 11 superior court judges out of about 60 sacked by General Musharraf under a controversial Nov 3, 2007, emergency proclamation, he said: ‘Let not democracy challenge itself on the ground of one reason or the other, whether on the streets of Lahore or on the streets of Islamabad. Let’s put an end to challenging each other. We have challenges enough from around the world and from our enemies within. Let’s be friends again and forever.’

PML-N cold-shoulder But despite earning concessions as a reward for its public agitation for about a month, the PML-N did not join desk-thumping by the treasury benches to greet Mr Zardari’s second address to a joint sitting of parliament in a little more than six months after he was elected president by a parliamentary electoral college.

As if it was still nursing its grievance about the imposition of governor’s rule and the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying the Sharif brothers, a source in parliament said the PML-N law-makers also did not turn up at a tea party hosted by National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza after the presidential address.

The president spoke only briefly in the beginning of his speech about what is going to be next focus of the political forces: empowerment of parliament as envisaged by the famous Charter of Democracy signed in 2006 by assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Zardari had only vaguely offered to have his authority curtailed by proposing in his Sept 20, 2008, speech to a joint sitting that a parliamentary committee ‘revisit’ the constitution’s Musharraf-era controversial 17th Amendment and article 58 (2) (b) that gave the presidency powers that should be exercised by the prime minister in a genuine parliamentary system of government, but no move made even to form that body.

After a lot of criticism for allegedly having second thoughts about clipping his powers as he did about his promise to restore the deposed judges before their reinstatement order on March 16, the president urged the National Assembly speaker to constitute this ‘committee of all political parties’ to propose amendments to the constitution ‘in light of the Charter of Democracy’ and said: ‘The amendments should be finalised without any further delay.’

In the rest of his speech, the president cited an ailing economy, growing extremism and militancy and the judicial crisis among the many problems he said the present government had inherited on taking office by the end of March last year and said significant progress had been achieved in different areas during the last one year. ‘But much more needs to be done,’ he said, adding that a ‘heavy national agenda awaits you’ to protect democracy, fight militancy, heal the ‘wounds’ of the past, and build infrastructure.

While talking of a ‘situation of near economic meltdown due to the inherited problems and a global recession in the face of a massive shortfall in energy, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and rising inflation, he said difficult decisions and a home-grown economic reforms programme had started showing results.’

He said inflation had declined from over 25 per cent in Aug 2008 to 21 per cent and that it would be brought down to a single digit by the next year. Since the second quarter, there had been no net borrowing from the State Bank and the rupee had recovered some of the value it lost in Oct 2008.

In the first eight months of the fiscal 2008-09, he said, remittances had grown and foreign exchange reserves stood at $6.4 billion in November last and were over $10 billion a week ago. Citing reconciliation as a vision of the late Ms Bhutto, he said this was ‘the only way forward’ and added: ‘We must not remain hostage to the bitterness of the past. We need to bring together the federating units in a spirit of mutual accommodation.’

Referring to the problems of Balochistan, he said ‘ways and means may be explored for the voluntary return of exiles and grant of general amnesty to the political prisoners’.

He said these issues needed to be discussed in parliament, to which he urged to frame a ‘Balochistan policy which is sustainable and acceptable to the people of the province. Give them the autonomy they have been demanding for 60 years’.

Among the guest to watch the joint sitting, which was prorogued after the president’s speech, were provincial governors and chief ministers, armed forces’ chiefs and foreign diplomats.

The president’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the designated PPP chairman while still studying in Britain, was present in the President’s Gallery along with some friends from Oxford.

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