When President Asif Ali Zardari addressed Parliament for the fifth time at the beginning of the parliamentary year, he became the only President of Pakistan to do so. This reflected the failure of his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, to carry out this constitutional duty because he had been the only previous President to have had the opportunity, as no previous Parliament had gone the full five years of its tenure. It should be noted that the present Parliament has only entered its fifth year, which is around the time it should be dissolved if the government is to have any control over the timing of the next general election. It would, probably, be inclined to go the full term, and let the automatic mechanism for the next general election to kick-in because the members of the Cabinet would prefer to retain their jobs, with the attendant perks, for as long as possible. However, while that may be a consideration for ministers, apparently, it is not for the President, who did not refer in his speech to this.

Admittedly, the President expects nothing from this Parliament. Another National Assembly, but the same Senate, will vote in the next presidential election that will succeed the general election for the National and Provincial Assemblies, which must be held by June 2013. The presidential election - like the last one - will be virtually the first thing that the new Parliament does. The last election was precipitated by President Musharraf’s resignation. The present incumbent took the job because he could, and because the post still enjoyed the powers given to it by the 17th Amendment, which included that of dissolving the National Assembly, and thus dismissing the government, which had come in first under the 18th Amendment, which it seemed was required by military rulers to keep political governments under control, but which politicians chafed under. It is because of that power of dissolution, abolished first by the 14th Amendment under Nawaz Sharif and then by the 18th Amendment under the present government, that the President’s speech at the beginning of the parliamentary year was so closely watched.

The speech was originally meant to be a copy of the ‘Queen’s Speech from the Throne’. Delivered to Parliament in the joint session, and held in the House of Lords, the speech is supposed to be a summary of the legislative proposals the government intends to bring in during the forthcoming parliamentary year. Apart from the principle that the British monarch only acts according to the advice of the Prime Minister, this disclosure of the intentions of the government requires that the speech be delivered only on the advice of the Prime Minister. There is also the US President’s ‘State of the Union Address’, again at the beginning of the congressional year, and also to a joint session, which is a touch different because the US President is an executive President. Military rulers would like to follow this example, so when the first speech was to be made after the restoration of democracy, at the beginning of the parliamentary year in March 1986, President Ziaul Haq is supposed to have thrown away the draft sent to him by the Junejo government, and delivered his own speech. To an extent, this was justified because the President could dissolve the National Assembly, and this made the speech a potential report on the government. However, none of the presidents using the dissolution power - Zia, Ghulam Ishaq Khan or Farooq Leghari - ever used the speech that way, with Leghari even using the draft the government forwarded. The reason for this is that at the beginning of a parliamentary year, no president has actually intended a dissolution. However, they still went ahead because they could. The power has now been removed, as have other presidential powers.

So, President Zardari read out the draft that the Prime Minister advised him to. Therefore, the praise of the Prime Minister the speech contained was, probably, no more significant than a little ego trip. But since the President is the Chairman of the party of which the Prime Minister is merely a member, it seems that he has more input into what advice he is to receive, in this case into what he was going to say, than envisaged in the constitutional scheme of things.

What apparently has not been considered is how the last speech before an election is potentially used. The address is supposed to be followed by debates on votes of thanks for it in both houses. These debates are opportunities for members to express themselves on anything, much like budget debates. However, much attention will be paid to the budget because it will of necessity be an election budget, and the conventional wisdom is that a government likes to scatter around largesse before the election. However, this government does not have much largesse to scatter around, and it also feels that it must display the fiscal responsibility so beloved of the international finance institutions. Therefore, it almost seems, well in advance, that there will be little relief in the budget, though the government will take some measures it would like to portray in the elections as pro-poor measures.

Another question raised by the speech is whether the protest by the opposition has attained the status of a convention or not. There is no ‘carryover’’ tradition from the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, except that the ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’, when he comes from the Lords to summon the Commons to come and attend the joint session, has the doors of the House slammed in his face. The tradition dates back to the earlier part of the 17th century, nearly 400 years ago, when the Commons wished to express their dislike of the King by not attending the joint session and not listening to the speech, and thus precipitating the civil war. The Commons maintain the tradition to prove their independence, though they have established their primacy.

Similarly, the opposition first used the speech to the joint sitting to protest at the President when the PPP - now in government - protested against Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993, in the “Go, baba, go” protest which was echoed in the opposition’s “Go, Zardari, go” slogan it used this time around. The tradition, if it can be called that, was perhaps in disuse because previously President Zardari met a politer reaction. However, he showed more inclination to accept the protest than his predecessor, who stayed away from the house except for once, when the opposition howled at him, while he showed it his fists. At the time, he was not only President, but also COAS, and it almost seemed he wished to avoid embarrassment because of his army constituency, rather than because he had much concern about the affront offered to the august office he was holding. However, if the opposition’s behaviour is anything, it is a tradition, not a constitutional convention, for it has no nexus with the Constitution, which in Pakistan is written. Another argument for it having attained the status of a tradition is that one of the original protesters, then an MNA, is now himself President!

n    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.

    Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk