South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Raja Asghar

ISLAMABAD: It was finally all ayes for the 18th Amendment on Thursday after some divisive sound and fury as the Senate completed the legislative approval of landmark constitutional reforms aimed mainly to empower parliament and provinces.

All 90 senators of the 100-seat upper house present at the time — 23 more than the required two-thirds majority — voted for the 102-clause Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Bill, copying a similar rare unanimity seen in the National Assembly a week ago.

The renaming of the NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa created some fireworks during the clause-by-clause second reading of the bill earlier, but the move’s opponents, mainly from the opposition PML-Q, failed to show a respectable strength and suffered an overwhelming defeat.

On April 8, all 292 members of the 342-seat National Assembly had voted for the bill drafted by a 26-member committee headed by PPP’s Senator Raza Rabbani, who has been showered with accolades from all around for his pivotal role in forging a consensus of all 14 parties represented in parliament.

The bill now needs only President Asif Ali Zardari’s signature to take effect, which will mean transferring some key presidential powers to parliament, or the prime minister, enhancing provincial autonomy and righting some of constitutional wrongs done by military dictators.

There was no official word yet about when the president would give his assent to the bill to complete a process he himself had triggered by asking parliament to set up the all-party committee to “revisit” the constitution’s objectionable provisions at the cost of his own powers, though he was doing it to implement his own party’s manifesto.

But a source in the ruling PPP said the government would like to make a “grand show” of it to highlight the importance of the amendments and a unique position the president would acquire by volunteering to surrender discretionary powers such as dissolution of the National Assembly and appointment of chiefs of armed forces and provincial governors.

“Today it is the victory of democracy,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a speech after the vote and assured the house that his two-year-old PPP-led coalition government would seek to “take along all” to deliver on its commitments so “people feel fruits of democracy are reaching them”.

President Zardari too said in a special message issued on the occasion that “democracy has won today and dictators have been defeated by the people and political forces of the country”.

The bill also seeks to repeal the controversial Seventeenth Amendment of 2003 that legitimised then military president Pervez Musharraf’s decrees, abolish the concurrent legislative list of the Constitution to transfer more subjects to the provinces and provide for parliamentary oversight of the appointment of judges of superior courts and Election Commission members.

The house rejected by voice vote several amendments proposed mostly by PML-Q members seeking retention of the NWFP’s existing name, turning NWFP’s mainly non-Pakhtun Hazara division into Hazara province and carving out new Bahawalpur and Seraiki or South Punjab provinces out of the Punjab province.

Only 12 PML-Q senators, out of the party’s total of 21, voted against the clause for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was supported by 80 votes.

However, authors of an amendment seeking to retain a 17th Amendment clause mandating intra-party elections, including PPP dissident Safdar Abbasi, were able to garner a bigger support — of 21 senators against 71 — although a related clause of the bill was passed by 78 votes to 16.

Mr Rabbani explained on the occasion that the committee had taken a “conscious decision” against retaining the 17th Amendment clause because it was prescribed by General Musharraf as a “noose in the neck” for the then two main opposition parties — PPP and PML-N — while provisions for party elections already existed in the Political Parties Act.

The maximum vote in the mostly unanimous clause-by-clause voting, for which members had to stand in their seats to be counted, reached up to 94 for one clause. But the final vote by division, for which members had to go to separate “ayes” and “noes” lobbies to register their preferences, fell to 90-0, as for many clauses in earlier voting, despite an announcement by opposition leader Wasim Sajjad of the PML-Q that his party would support the bill as a whole despite its reservations on some clauses like NWFP name change.

In his speech, the prime minister urged the ANP-led NWFP government to engage the people of Hazara division who have held violent protests in recent days against the renaming of their province.

Earlier, ANP Senator Afrasiab Khattak assured the house that his party would have “unconditional dialogue” with “our brothers” in Hazara and would seek to satisfy them.

The prime minister announced that the government would give the highest civil awards to all members of the parliamentary committee which drafted the bill and that he would like Mr Rabbani, who piloted it in both houses of parliament as his adviser, “not to leave us” and head an implementation cell to oversee the implementation of the provisions of the bill.

Source: Dawn – 16.04.2010

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