ISLAMABAD: Last week, the government celebrated an inauspicious but important anniversary in the National Assembly: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) completed its third parliamentary year, the first time the milestone has been achieved by a Nawaz Sharif-led federal government.
Even though the ruling party has been in power twice before, and that too with a heavy mandate, its stint was ended prematurely both times, ostensibly on account of a showdown with the military establishment.
“Of course, it’s a great achievement for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as well, who also completed three years in office for the first time,” said a senior federal minister.
“In cricket, they’re known as the ‘nervous nineties’, but for us in the PML-N, it’s the cursed third year in the government, which thank God, is behind us now,” he quipped. Both of Nawaz Sharif’s earlier stints as PM had ended in the third year.
Even though the Panamagate scandal had hit the government hard, many in the ruling party hope that with the composition of a joint parliamentary committee, which will formulate the terms of references (ToR) for a proposed inquiry commission, political temperatures will come down in the days to come.
For Sheikh Aftab Ahmed, the PML-N chief whip in the National Assembly, it was the immaturity of political parties that encouraged ‘outside forces’ to intervene in the 1990s.
“Despite all the confrontation and bad blood, there is a consensus at the moment among political forces across the spectrum that they will not support undemocratic moves. God willing, the PML-N will also complete five years in power,” the minister of state for parliamentary affairs hoped.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the opposition and treasury faced off as tensions simmered over the ToR for the Panamagate commission, but despite that, the whole house came together to unanimously vote for the 22nd constitution amendment. “This shows we all have come of age,” Mr Aftab emphasised.
But it hasn’t been a bed of roses for the third-time prime minister: the government faced its biggest challenge in their second year in office when Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri parked themselves — and their followers — outside the parliament between August and December 2014.
That protest only ended when the tragic massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar forced political leaders to sit together and come up with a solution.
The next year, in 2015, an inquiry commission investigating systematic rigging in the 2013 general elections — the purpose of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) dharna outside parliament — gave the PML-N a clean-chit.
“Had the inquiry commission given a verdict against the government, we would have been sent home in the third year again,” the minister, who spoke off the record, mused.
The Panamagate legacy
This year, things were looking up for the government: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was in vogue and a rare period of smooth civil-military relations appeared to have emerged. So much so that there were occasions when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif would meet thrice a week.
Then came the Panamagate scandal. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that the prime minister’s two sons and daughter were the beneficial owners of offshore companies set up in the British Virgin Islands, a known tax haven.
Thereafter, the PM addressed the nation twice, and offered a detailed account of his family’s businesses in the National Assembly, explaining how his late father had built the business empire, which was the source of income used to buy properties in London and other holdings.
At the moment, an opposition alliance has agreed to sit with the government in a parliamentary committee, which will frame the ToR for the judicial commission to investigate whether the PM’s family members, and indeed all others named in the Panama Papers, had used illegal money to set up offshore companies.
Although the prime minister has promised to resign if proven guilty by the proposed commission, the two main opposition parties — PPP and PTI — are of the view that the PM must step down until investigations are completed.
In terms of legislation, the fourteenth National Assembly has passed 48 acts since its inception.
While the focus of most legislation under the PPP years was purifying the Constitution of the “unconstitutional and undemocratic acts of General Pervez Musharraf”, the PML-N’s thrust has been the economy, besides anti-terror measures such as the Protection of Pakistan Act, the National Action Plan (NAP) and the controversial 21st amendment.
For example, the PPP managed to pass the seminal 18th amendment, which ensured provincial autonomy and countered the 17th amendment – introduced by Gen Musharraf – that had reprised the controversial Clause 58(2)b, giving himself the power to dissolve parliament.
The previous PPP government also passed the 19th amendment for the appointment of judges and a bill against harassment of women at workplace, despite opposition from the religious right.
On its part, the PML-N has not been able to push pro-women legislation through the federal legislature. Even the much-touted Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015, passed by the PML-N controlled Punjab Assembly, has been slated for review over opposition from conservative quarters.
Apart from their anti-terrorism actions, the main focus of PML-N legislation has been income tax laws, privatisation, anti-dumping duties, GST and surcharges in the energy sector, among others.
To convert the national flag carrier into a public limited company, the PIAC Conversion Act was passed in April this year. But when it came to legislation against honour killings, the PML-N got cold feet and couldn’t ensure its passage despite ratification from the Senate.
Sheikh Aftab, the party’s point man for parliament, is confident that the pace of legislation would only pick up in the days to come.
Now, in his fourth year, it remains to be seen how the PM manages things. With the final two years of his term looming – a crucial period for any elected government to deliver on campaign promises – the results of the next polls hang in the balance. The PPP government that last completed five years in power was whitewashed out of the centre, primarily due to its dismal performance.
With Imran Khan breathing down their necks, the last thing the PML-N would want is to be unseated by a popular vote, come 2018.