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Pakistan Bans Lawmakers After Parliament Brawl

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)

Pakistan banned the entry of seven lawmakers into the parliament building in Islamabad following a scuffle in which opposition and ruling party MPs hurled copies of the budget book and shouted abuses at one another.

The June 16 ban followed the altercation a day earlier when members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party began shouting abuses at opposition members as Shehbaz Sharif, president of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the leading opposition party, began making a speech. Opposition MPs have been protesting on the parliament floor since the budget session began on June 12.

A ruling from the speaker's office on June 16 said seven parliamentarians had "violated the rules" and interrupted proceedings. "These members are required not to enter into the precincts of the Parliament House till further orders," said the notification.

Those barred from the building included both opposition and government MPs: Ali Gohar Khan, Chaudhry Hamid Hameed, Sheikh Rohale Asghar, Faheem Khan, Abdul Majeed Khan, Ali Nawaz Awan, and Syed Agha Rafiullah.

On June 15, the speaker made repeated calls for order in the house. But the two sides continued a tense standoff with security staff, and politicians on both sides suffered minor injuries from objects being thrown. The speaker, Asad Qaisar, postponed the session and said in a tweet that action would be taken against all those who disturbed the June 15 proceedings.

Political Meltdown

Videos of the confrontation in the parliament in which senior MPs are shown hurling vulgar epithets insulting each other’s female relatives quickly went viral on social media, drawing widespread condemnation.

"Disgusting and shameful behavior. What kind of message are we conveying to our people and the world?" Jalil Abbas Jilani, a former foreign secretary for Pakistan, wrote on Twitter as he shared a video of a ruling party MP from Islamabad shouting abuses at his opponents.

One of the most-watched videos shows the PTI’s Awan trying to advance on his opponents with abusive language while holding a copy of the voluminous budget book. Other MPs attempted to restrain him, but he hurled the budget book at PML-N MP Asghar.

According to Pakistan's budget tradition, it is the opposition leader who speaks on the budget first and for as long as he wishes. However, government MPs interrupted Shehbaz Sharif’s speech despite calls for order.

Addressing a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry stopped short of criticizing the MPs for disturbing order in the House. He said the ruling party would respond in kind because the opposition had previously tried to interrupt the prime minister in the past.

Simmering Resentment

Pakistan’s opposition parties have labeled Prime Minister Imran Khan a "selected" prime minister, who, in their view, was chosen by the military establishment. The opposition also calls the July 2018 election a "highly rigged" process, and they accuse the military of manipulating the vote in favor of the PTI. Although both the military and the government reject charges of interference and rigging, military spokesmen and political leaders -- including Khan himself -- have often maintained that the army and the government are on the same page.

Four army generals ruled the country for nearly half of its 72 years history. Democracy returned to Pakistan with the death of General Zia ul Haq in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Haq had deposed the government of Pakistan's first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in July 1977 and took over the reins of power. However, four elected governments were prematurely deposed between 1988 to 1999 due to political infighting and meddling by the military. The culmination point was the October 12, 1999, bloodless coup by General Pervez Musharraf, who deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and exiled his family to Saudi Arabia.

Musharraf’s resignation in 2007 as the chief of army staff opened the way for fresh elections in the country, which heralded a new era based on political tolerance. The two mainstream parties -- Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and PML-N -- learned to compromise and strengthened democratic norms, which made it harder for the military to get a foot in.

"What happened on June 15 was something pre-planned. Those people were involved who are imposed on us by the invisible forces," said Mohsin Dawar, an MP from the tribal region, while alluding to the military.

Dawar witnessed the June 15 skirmish and joined other lawmakers in stopping politicians from punching each other. "This will only benefit the undemocratic forces in Pakistan. I would call this an attack on democracy in Pakistan," he told Radio Mashaal on June 16.

Farhatullah Babar, a veteran politician and leader of the PPP, said the episode is unfortunate for his country’s democracy. “Those wanting to see parliament, parliamentarians and symbols of democracy degraded are happy today,” he tweeted.