The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid have asked the PML-Q dissidents who call themselves the “unification bloc” to reconsider their decision to support the rival PML-N in the Punjab Assembly or else face disqualification from their elective offices.
As the alliance between the PML-Q and the PPP begins to take shape, the two parties have begun to plan their moves to alter the political landscape of Punjab, the largest province in the country.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will be holding a hearing on the fate of nine of the 47 members of the PML-Q in the Punjab Assembly who have decided to throw in their lot with the province’s ruling PML-N, a rival to both the PPP and the PML-Q. The dissidents have been asked to make their decision before then or else face a bleak political future.
The PML-Q won 81 of the 371 seats in the Punjab Assembly in 2008. However, the PML-N has been able to lure away at least 47 of those members, which it would need if it wants to form a stable ruling coalition in Lahore after having kicked out the PPP from the provincial cabinet earlier this year.
On March 3, PML-Q parliamentary leader Chaudhry Zaheeruddin filed a reference against nine of the dissenters with Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal. Zaheeruddin alleges that the switching of party loyalties violates Article 63(a) of the constitution. Iqbal, however, did not forward the reference to the election commission, which led the PML-Q to file a petition with the ECP to force the speaker to forward to case.
The PML-Q, however, seems to be using the nine members is suing as test subjects. It hopes that their disqualification will scare the other members enough to force them to return to the fold. The reference is being file against five women legislators who hold seats reserved for women and only four elected legislators. It appears the PML-Q is not willing to let go of most of its ‘electable’ members.
PML-Q sources say that the party has told President Asif Ali Zardari that if the nine members are disqualified, the rest will come back to the party, which will then be in a position to support the PPP in a coalition that could oust the PML-N from the chief minister’s mansion in Lahore.
The PPP has 106 members in the Punjab Assembly and the PML-Q would likely only lose its four elected members (and induct five new women legislators in place of the five it will lose) to bring its tally to 77. The two parties would then be just three seats short of the 186 members required to form a majority in the assembly. While the PML-N has 177 members in the provincial legislature, it may well lose its majority and thus the government in Punjab.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, however, has been reluctant to move against the PML-N and has assured the Sharif brothers that the PPP will not move against their government in Punjab. PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi has also publicly committed to not destabilising the PML-N government in Lahore.
Sources close to the PPP say that President Zardari has played his cards quite carefully in wooing the PML-Q to join the PPP coalition at the federal level. They say that the party initiated a prosecution against Moonis Elahi, the party’s likely nominee for Punjab chief minister in the 2013 elections, in the National Insurance Company Ltd scandal to force the PML-Q to come to the table.
Sources say that the PPP has also delayed implementing the constitutional requirement – necessitated by the 18th Amendment – to make the election commission an independent body so as to be able to influence the outcome of the ECP hearings against the ‘unification bloc’ members.
Under the new set-up, ECP members would be nominated by the prime minister but confirmed by a parliamentary panel that is evenly divided between government and opposition members. PPP sources say that the president is unlikely to push for the implementation of this new clause until after the party has moulded Punjab politics to its liking.
The president has made it clear, however, that the PPP will not be giving up the Governors House in Lahore to its coalition partner. President Zardari, who has the constitutional authority to appoint the governor, views the position as critical to the party’s interests in the province.
PML-Q ‘unification bloc’ members meanwhile are nervous about what happens next. Those who won their seats with narrow margins say they will likely rejoin their parent party if some of the dissidents are disqualified, though they would want assurances that they would be treated with respect.
One of the leaders of the unification bloc, Atta Muhammad Khan Manika, however, said that the next month would be crucial for them to make a decision. He said that if neither the PML-N nor the PPP-PML-Q coalitions were able to secure a majority, the governor would have no choice but to dissolve the assembly and call for fresh elections.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2011.