Former president Asif Ali Zardari helps bring about consensus

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ISLAMABAD: Former president and PPP Co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari emerged as the ruling party’s main benefactor on Friday. Indeed, it was he who tipped the scales in the PML-N’s favour by endorsing the demand to set up military courts by amending the constitution and ending debate on the subject.
Mr Zardari’s support for the amendment is doubly significant, because it means that the PPP, which effectively controls the Senate with 41 out of 104 seats, will not block passage of the amendment in the upper house.
According to a participant of the All-Party Conference held on Friday, the PPP co-chairman played his cards well by first allowing his party’s legal eagles to criticise the bill for calling for a constitutional amendment, then ended up acting as a patriot who gave his consent in the ‘greater national interest’.
Soon after the meeting formally opened, PPP senators Farooq Naek and Aitzaz Ahsan tore into the amendment bill. For Mr Ahsan, the proposed amendment was an anathema to established democratic norms and would therefore not be accepted by the legal fraternity. He warned all those present of a possible adverse reaction from the bar councils.
The leader of the opposition in the Senate, Mr Ahsan also reiterated his earlier stand that the required objective of establishing military courts could be achieved through changes in the Pakistan Army Act (PAA) of 1952.
Senator Naek, on the other hand, told those in attendance how, in the past, similar measures were used against politicians. “If something unusual happens tomorrow, as the country has witnessed in the past, the proposed law will remain active and can be used against politicians,” Mr Naek was quoted as saying.
However, defending the measure, Attorney General Salman Aslam Butt and Barrister Farogh Naseem of the MQM said that without constitutional cover, merely changing the PAA will not serve the purpose and could be struck down in no time.
The argument of both legal experts centred on the possibility that the proposed amendment may be challenged in the superior courts. Mr Butt said that because of existing Supreme Court judgments against military courts, changes in the PAA would not be able to withstand legal wrangling. For Mr Naseem, “If we all believe the country is facing unprecedented circumstances, there is no other option but to accept the constitutional amendment for two years.”
The first part of the over five-hour-long meeting was consumed by arguments over the legalities of the proposed amendment, whereas politicians gave their input later. However, after Mr Zardari said “we should carry on deliberating until the issue is resolved”, nobody from PPP said a word of opposition.
According to a participant, Mr Zardari said these were difficult times and all parties had to come together to take measures that the PPP had opposed in the past, simply to ensure the terrorists’ defeat.
The JUI-F chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, also expressed concern over “repeated usage” of the national action plan against religious extremism, saying: “It seems that the entire consensus is being built against madressahs.” The Maulana also sought assurances that the proposed changes in the constitution wouldn’t be used to target religious parties.
PML-Q leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Senator Mushahid Hussain, in reaction to prolonged discussion among the lawyers—both for and against the amendment—said the meeting room was not a courtroom to decide legal issues. “If the entire political leadership is on the same page, there is nothing wrong with the proposed changes in the constitution,” Mr Hussain was quoted as saying.
Talking to Dawn, PTI leader Shafqat Mehmood said his party had supported the establishment of military courts to drive out terrorists from the country, but had opposed any changes in the Constitution. “The PTI was for the changes in the PAA as the party believed the desired results could be achieved that way.” However, having seen a broad agreement among all political parties over the bill for changes in the constitution, “we were left with no choice but to stand with everybody else”.
Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2015

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