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Friday, 19 September 2008

Punjab’s undesirable politics of defection (i.e. Lota Politics)

Despite advice from all sane quarters, Punjab is in the grip of a power tussle. A firm arrangement is making transition to an uncertain one that is going to be haunted by court cases and general acrimony. The PMLN government wants to end the coalition with the PPP and wants its ministers out of its cabinet. Since it falls short of a majority after this exclusion, it wants the third largest party in the assembly, the PMLQ, to join it. And since it wants no truck with the leaders of the party, it is seeking defections from the ranks of the erstwhile ruling party of Pakistan.

The politics of defection — called “lota politics” by the electorate in a term of extreme contempt — is regrettably initiated through iftar parties, an abuse of the spiritual ritual of Ramazan. The iftar party thrown by the PMLN on Wednesday saw the PMLQ defectors turn up in large numbers, but not large enough to match the claims made earlier. According to one report, the PMLN had claimed that it had lured away 51 MPAs, but actually only 22 or thereabouts turned up to show that they had left their own party. Another report says the defectee “guests” were 28. Yet another says they were 34.

The PMLQ, the party that began fraying at the edges as its patron President Pervez Musharraf began to get into trouble during 2007, is being “milked” by the PMLN. But the Chaudhrys, Shujaat Hussain and Pervaiz Elahi, who lead the party claim their party has by and large resisted the move. The forward bloc that had formed earlier has performed the “double-lota” and come back into the fold, barring a few who will be proceeded against under the 14th Amendment of 1997 that unseats anyone crossing the floor. The PMLQ says the PMLN can’t show a majority in the house.

The compulsion to stage a confrontation has plunged the parties back into the arithmetic thrown up by the 2008 elections. After the elections, the PMLN was the leading party in Punjab with 110 seats, followed by the PPP with 78 seats and the PMLQ with 66 seats. There were 36 “independents” — a cover-up for permitted “lotaism” — to be had by whoever formed the government. The PMLN formed a coalition with the PPP at the centre and in Punjab; and together the two parties plus the independents reached a comfortable majority in the Punjab assembly.

Now the political stage in the province is shaky. It all began with the PPP and PMLN loathing the PMLQ in unison: the name was “Qatil” League after the assassination of Ms Bhutto. Then the PPP and the PMLN went back to loathing each other as they used to during the decade of the 1990s, Pakistan’s worst political interregnum. Now the PMLN wants to continue to hate the PMLQ and pluck its MPAs out of the opposition while the PPP wants to negotiate with the PMLQ leadership and kick the PMLN out of government in Lahore.

The PMLN and PMLQ are really an old party that bifurcated in 1999 and fought the 2002 election under the name of Quaid-e-Azam. While the PMLN was in the wilderness till 2008, the PMLQ ruled the country. Now is the time for the defectees of 2002 to do a “double-lota”, as was witnessed when the PML government was fired by the president in 1993. Fearing this possibility again the PML amended the Constitution to punish the floor-crossers. It was perhaps an over-correction and stands today as the most punitive clause for politicians in the Constitution. It is recoiling on the framers of the Amendment, which was actually held in abeyance by President Musharraf to facilitate defections from the PML. The 14th Amendment (1997) is quite strict. It has the following sub-clauses defining defectors that the law would unseat: (a) [Anyone who] commits a breach of party discipline which means a violation of the party constitution, code of conduct and declared policies, or (b) votes contrary to any direction issued by the Parliamentary Party to which he belongs, or (c) abstains from voting in the House against party policy in relation to any bill.

In India, defection is allowed if it is by a bloc comprising one-third of the party strength in the house. Perhaps that is why the name “forward bloc” has regained currency in Pakistan after the 14th Amendment. The two mainstream parties have landed themselves in another embarrassing situation. Instead of cooperating, as earlier pledged, they have now taken the path of confrontation. And if Punjab is destabilised, it means nothing will work smoothly in the country. (Daily Times).

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