ISLAMABAD: A proposed constitution Nineteenth Amendment, meeting most of the Supreme Court’s concerns over a new mode of appointing the superior judiciary, came to parliament on Tuesday in the form of an all-party committee’s unanimous report and a draft bill presented to the National Assembly and hailed as historic across party lines.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s cabinet is due to meet on Wednesday to likely approve the bill before its formal introduction in the 342-seat lower house, which must pass it with a two-thirds majority before it goes to the 100-seat Senate for a similar approval.
The bill is aimed to give effect to changes made in light of suggestions made by the Supreme Court in an Oct 21 order after hearing several challenges to parliament’s role in appointing judges of the apex court and high courts as set in the landmark Eighteenth Amendment passed in April.
In a brief speech after the presentation of the report and the proposed seven-clause Constitution (Nineteenth Amendment) Bill by the parliamentary committee’s chairman, Senator Raza Rabbani, the prime minister described the documents as a gesture of parliament’s “highest respect” for the judiciary to reciprocate the regard it showed for lawmakers by referring the issue back to them to review some earlier amendments.
Mr Gilani endorsed Mr Rabbani’s theme that the unanimous report of the committee’s 26 members from all parties in the two houses of parliament was a show of maturity of Pakistan’s political leadership despite a preceding propaganda campaign predicting a clash between institutions, adding that all institutions were gaining maturity and that none of them had “made it an issue of its ego”.
On the basis of its performance, including the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which restored a genuine parliamentary system of government and gave greater autonomy to provinces, the prime minister said none of parliaments of which he had been a member had been “as efficient as this”, and called Tuesday’s event as a double gift to the nation along with the army’s “successful” training launch of a nuclear-capable 1,300-km range Hatf-5 (Ghauri) missile earlier in the day.
Mr Rabbani, for whom it was another proud day after piloting the unanimous passage of the Eighteenth Amendment as chairman of the same committee and an adviser to the prime minister, said the proposed unanimous bill had sent “a very strong signal” that Pakistani democracy and institutions had come of age, its political system “is maturing” and its democratic institutions “are gaining in strength”.
He said that despite a preceding “storm in the political teacup” all political parties represented in parliament came to a “unanimous consensus” when his Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms met last after the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, addressed a joint sitting of parliament on Sunday, in a development that he said showed a “culture of political tolerance is growing” in the country and that despite possible differences on other matters, “on core issues Pakistan’s leadership stands united”.
Referring to those who predicted a confrontation between the judiciary and parliament after several provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment were challenged before the Supreme Court, Mr Rabbani said: “Those fears of clash are buried for ever.”
Major amendments proposed in the bill include one increasing the strength of a judicial commission headed by the Supreme Court chief justice, which must propose the names for appointments, from existing seven to nine — including four, rather than two, senior-most judges of the apex court besides a former judge of the court to be named by the chief justice — and fixing a minimum of 15 years’ experience for a lawyer to be nominated on the body by the Pakistan Bar Council, besides the federal law minister and the attorney-general.
Some other amendments provide that an eight-member Parliamentary Committee that must finally approve the appointment of judges would hold its meetings in camera, send its approval or rejection of a nomination to the prime minister instead of the president — who must finally notify an appointment — and that it would be exempted from a bar on discussing the conduct of judges in parliament.
The committee did not agree to a court proposal to make rejection of a nomination by the Judicial Commission justifiable by the Supreme Court and that a second-time nomination of a rejected candidate would be final, and stuck to the original provision that the commission make a fresh nomination.
Another amendment makes it mandatory for the chief justice to consult the judicial commission in appointing ad-hoc judges.
One amendment, unrelated to the Supreme Court ruling, raises the strength of another parliamentary committee for the appointment of a chief election commissioner to 12 from eight.
While representatives of all parties welcomed the report as a whole, Ms Kashmala Tariq and Sardar Bahadur Khan Sehar said the 19th amendment should also have made creation of new provinces easier than the existing requirement of a constitutional amendment which must be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament.
Nawab Yousuf Talpur also called for incorporating his pending private bill to designate the country’s regional languages like Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto and Balochi as national languages.
On what was the first private members’ day of the new session, which began on Monday, there was only brief echo of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam’s decision last week to quit the PPP-led coalition government when its member Maulana Ataur Rehman, asked Speaker Fehmida Mirza to take an early action on his party’s application for the allotment of opposition seats to its members.
The speaker told the house that some JUI members had met her about the issue and that a procedure had to be followed to do it. “Please expedite it,” quipped the Maulana, who was still occupying his seat on the treasury benches.
The Maulana, who is a brother of party chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has resigned as tourism minister along with his party’s housing minister Rehmatullah Kakar to protest against the sacking of JUI’s science and technology minister Azam Khan Swati for violating the cabinet discipline in recriminations over alleged corruption in Haj affairs with PPP’s religious affairs minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi, who too was removed by the prime minister.