Wednesday 17th November will long be remembered as one of the “blackest” days in the parliamentary history of Pakistan. On that day, a PTI government rammed dozens of bills through a joint session of both houses of parliament without as much as giving the opposition leave to read the text of most bills, let alone debate them as required by tradition and law. Among these were the highly contentious bill to impose Electronic Voting Machines on the Election Commission of Pakistan (which had earlier rejected the proposed for many valid reasons, not least that EVMs could be used to rig elections), a bill to grant 9 million “overseas Pakistanis” the right to vote in Pakistan elections via the internet (a scheme that is also vulnerable to both rigging and distortion of election results), a bill to castrate rapists (that is unprecedented in modern history), etc. Several important points stand out.
First, the joint session was postponed by the government when its alliance partners voiced disgruntlement with the ruling party, sparking fears that they might absent themselves from the session and deprive the government of the numbers needed to pass the legislation. This compelled the Miltablishment to step into the fray and lean on dissenters to attend the joint session and support the government. A government that was on the verge of being shown up as losing the confidence of the house, and hence the right to rule, was shored up unnaturally, just as it had been hoisted into office three years ago by the same Miltablishment which rigged the general elections by switching off the RTS and stuffing ballot boxes.
Second, law and constitution were beaten black and blue. The Speaker of the National Assembly, Asad Qaisar, played the role of a poker faced partisan of the PTI instead of the avowed neutral “custodian of the house”, refusing to allow the opposition to speak, or to divide the house and count votes, eventually ruling that the ayes have it amidst a roar of nays. It is especially noteworthy that he took the position that a simple majority was needed of those present in the house to carry the omnibus bill package while the opposition insisted that a majority of those elected to both houses was necessary. The Speaker clutched at a clause in the constitution that explains how a bill originating in any of the two houses of parliament can be legislated through a joint session of both houses by a simple majority of those present, in the event that it is not passed in any one house. His interpretation ignores the critical fact that a joint session may only be called to override the decision of any house to reject or amend any bill and is not available as an instrument to bypass any house in which the bill has not even been presented, let alone been rejected. In every bi-cameral parliamentary system of the world, the upper house or Senate that is indirectly elected to represent the federating units is meant to check and balance the lower house or National Assembly that is directly elected, but without crippling it. That is why the Senate has the right to reject a bill originating in the National Assembly but the ruling party in the National Assembly has the right to call a joint session to override the decision of the Senate. But in our case, the opposition which enjoys a majority in the Senate has not seen, read or debated most of the bills that were railroaded on Black Wednesday. Even the EVM bill was pending for debate in the Senate and had not been rejected by it. As such, the opposition will likely challenge the Speaker’s ruling in the courts on the applicability of the particular constitutional clause in a situation in which the Bills were not even presented in the Senate in the first place.
Third, this episode has rekindled speculation that the “same page” narrative of the unholy compact between the PTI and Miltablishment is alive and kicking, much to the disappointment of the opposition that had pinned its hopes of political rebirth owing to tensions between the two sides on important issues. Indeed, the opposition had decided to train its guns on Imran Khan while sparing the chief Miltablishment architects of their misfortune on assurances of “political neutrality” and reconsiderations of “options” going forward without Imran Khan. This “strategy” was advocated by Bilawal Bhutto and Shahbaz Sharif as opposed to Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman. Now the opposition will have to huddle and determine whether this episode is a temporary Miltablishment reprieve for Imran Khan for various reasons or whether the Miltablishment has “betrayed” them once again and cannot be trusted.
The prevailing consensus among analysts is that negotiations between the Miltablishment and opposition have gone so far that the current hiccup will not derail them for two reasons: one, the Miltablishment has come to the irrevocable conclusion that Imran Khan is a recurring liability which is undermining its institutional credibility as well as “national security”. So, in principle, it will continue to explore options sans Imran Khan. Two, the opposition is agreed that it must create space for negotiating with the leaders of the Miltablishment by “guarantees” of both good behaviour regarding its institutional interests and safe passage for its errant leaders. All eyes will therefore be focused on Nawaz Sharif who holds the key to negotiations with leaders of the Miltablishment. If he refrains from targeting the chief protagonist, COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa, one may assume that the negotiations will continue behind the scenes until the “guarantees” are in place and change can be ushered in. But if he considers the current bailout of Imran Khan a serious breach of trust and reverts to form, then Imran Khan may get a longer reprieve than anticipated.