Despatch from Lahore International

Elected or selected PM? A debate is on in Pakistan

Last Sunday, Qasim Suri, Deputy Speaker of Pakistan’s National Assembly (NA), asked Members of Parliament not to use the word ‘selected’ for Prime Minister Imran Khan. Federal Minister of Power Omar Ayub Khan was speaking on a point of order when he asked the Deputy Speaker to stop the Opposition members from using the word. Mr. Ayub Khan threatened to use privilege motions against those who would use this word.

It all began with Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s maiden speech at the National Assembly in August last year. “I’d like to thank and congratulate the Prime Minister-select and wish him good luck” is how Mr. Bhutto concluded his speech. Prime Minister Khan thumped his desk after Mr. Bhutto’s speech. It is said that he must have missed the word ‘select’ and may have thought he was being called ‘Prime Minister-elect’.

People commented on Mr. Bhutto-Zardari’s wit and since that day, the phrases ‘Prime Minister-select’ and ‘selected Prime Minister’ have often been used by Opposition members both on the floor of the House and outside. This has obviously irked the Prime Minister as well as some members of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Mr. Ayub Khan’s threat and the Deputy Speaker’s consequent directions to lawmakers are a testament to this fact. The Opposition has been criticising this ‘ruling’ ever since.

Mr. Bhutto-Zardari told The Hindu that over the course of the last year, “we have seen how PM Khan’s naya Pakistan slips from authoritarianism towards fascism”. Now, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, parliamentarians are being censored on the floor of the House, he said.

“Banning the word ‘select’ doesn’t change the fact that the PTI won a selection, not an election. This government has no legitimacy... They can censor all they want, send the entire Opposition to jail. That won’t change the fact that Imran Khan is no different to Zia ul Haq’s [Muhammad Khan] Junejo or [Pervez] Musharraf’s Shaukat Aziz,” he said.

According to journalist Sana Bucha, a House of 342 politicians “is being disciplined to serve the vanity of an individual”. “PM Khan should learn to distinguish between the Assembly and the dressing room,” she said.

Barrister Omar Sajjad said the ruling of the Speaker/Deputy Speaker cannot be challenged under the Constitution. However, courts have in the past entertained such petitions. “If rules require to adopt a certain procedure then that procedure can only be dispensed with by suspension of the rule by the majority of the members present. This is done by a motion to suspend the rule,” Mr. Sajjad said.

Irrespective of what the Opposition can do to counter it, the Deputy Speaker’s decision appears to be counterproductive, say analysts. Amber Shamsi, journalist and anchorperson, said that if the purpose of banning the word ‘selected’ from being used for the PM in the NA was to spark a debate on prime-time television, generate international headlines and launch a thousand memes, then it succeeded. “If the ban was meant to demonstrate that the Opposition was poking the government in the soft underbelly, then it succeeded,” she said.

‘Subtle taunt’

Ms. Shamsi said the ‘soft underbelly’ seems to be “the accusation that the PTI clambered to power on the back of the military.” ‘Selected’ is a subtle and subversive taunt, delegitimising the party in power. It’s a tip of the hat to the ultimate historical shame — a political leader created by the military elite rather than through popular vote.

Ms. Shamsi recalled how Mr. Khan often called Nawaz Sharif the political offspring of military dictator Zia. She added that if the point of banning the word ‘select’ was to force the Opposition to respect the Prime Minister, then it hasn’t succeeded. It has just given the Opposition further ammunition to accuse the PTI of undermining democracy. “After all, freedom of speech is a parliamentary privilege protected in the Constitution: a parliamentarian is not liable to court proceedings based on what he or she says during a session.”

She added that there are plenty of synonyms for the word ‘select’. “Can the government ban them all?” she asked.

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 6:24:47 AM |

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