President Dr Arif Alvi on Thursday faced an embarrassing situation after a majority of treasury and opposition members refused to stick around for his constitutionally mandatory address to a joint sitting of parliament.
Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the three services chiefs, besides provincial governors and chief ministers, were also conspicuous by their absence from the galleries during the address, held to mark the beginning of the last parliamentary year of the present National Assembly.
However, an NA Secretariat official told Dawn that the services chiefs had sent their representatives to the session. A good number of foreign diplomats also watched the lacklustre proceedings.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also evaded the event by holding a press conference at the PM House almost simultaneously. Similarly, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari preferred to hold a press conference in Karachi over the joint sitting of parliament.
Hours after the president’s address, Mr Bhutto-Zardari through his official Twitter handle demanded “impeachment of the president”, criticising the latter for his “unconstitutional efforts to sabotage vote of no confidence”, violating the Constitution and his oath in order to undermine transfer of power.
During the nearly 50-minute speech, which was heard by less than two dozen members belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and some PTI dissidents who remained seated till the end, President Alvi urged political parties to decide the election date through dialogue to end the prevailing “polarisation” in the country.
PTI chairman Imran Khan had earlier barred his party’s senators from attending the session on Thursday.
But as soon as Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf formally invited the president to the dais, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Senator Mushtaq Ahmed began protesting the continued detention of South Waziristan MNA Ali Wazir and raised slogans demanding that his production orders be issued.
He was joined by PTI dissident Raja Riaz and then Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who began bellowing at the speaker. The nature of the cross-talk – while the president attempted to deliver his speech – made it difficult to make out what each was saying, but Mr Riaz declared off-mic that the president had no right to address the house, which he had unconstitutionally dissolved at the time of the vote of no-confidence against former prime minister Imran Khan.
Even though the chair asked him to return to his seat, the JI lawmaker continued and was joined by other lawmakers, who then remonstrated in front of the speaker’s dais.
After staying in the house for a few minutes, most members led by ministers such as Syed Naveed Qamar and Khursheed Shah, began strolling casually towards the various exits, giving the impression that they had no interest in the president’s speech.
Perhaps aware that he would be speaking to a ‘hostile audience’, the president made no controversial remarks against the incumbent regime, nor did he mention the regime change in April, that came to pass as a result of a no-trust motion. He also lauded the government over their successful talks and agreements concluded with the International Monetary Fund.
At the outset of his address, President Alvi talked about the catastrophic floods that wreaked havoc across the country and praised the Pakistan Army for helping victims. He also lauded the federal and provincial governments, the National Disaster Management Authority and NGOs for helping flood victims, adding that the disaster had, once again, put the spotlight on the demand for building more dams.
The president also lauded the government for improving ties with the US, even though his party leader accuses it of masterminding his ouster from the government in April.
“We have seen ups and downs, but the US is a big market for our goods. We want to improve ties based on mutual understanding. The government is striving for it and I commend this,” the president said, while also underscoring the need for improving ties with China.
Talking about Afghanistan, he said: “We have a clear position that we want peace there. Taliban have promised that their soil will not be used against terrorism and we expect everyone to keep their word.”
About India, he said Pakistan desired better ties with its neighbour, but only after a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
Dr Alvi also expressed concern over skyrocketing inflation, saying the dollar-rupee parity was worrisome and called for a continuation of policies, despite the change of governments.
Referring to the recent audio leaks from PM Office, he said private conversations should not be made available out in the public and they should stay “where they belong”.
The president also called for giving the right of vote to the overseas Pakistanis who sent remittances to the country.
Most of the president’s speech was consumed by health-related issues. Dr Alvi, who is a dentist by profession, emphasised the provision of contraceptives to control population growth.
He particularly highlighted the importance of curing diseases linked to mental illnesses stressing that there were society’s “silent killers”.
‘Not a broker, just bringing people closer’
Earlier in the day, the president had an interaction with a group of journalists at the Presidency. During the informal chat with the reporters, the president made another veiled reference to a purported meeting between Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa at the Presidency.
When asked about the reported meeting, the president simply said that he would “continue his efforts to bring people closer”.
“Even in conflict within a family, people contribute to sort things out. This is never an easy job,” said the president when asked to confirm the report.
He, however, denied “brokering” any deal in the political scenario.
“I am not a broker. I only make efforts to bring people closer,” the president was quoted as saying by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan.
On prospects of the success of his efforts, the president said he could not predict the results but said that these “efforts must be carried on”.