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EDITORIAL: As if the existing friction between the coalition government and PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) weren’t enough, there’s now also the awkwardness of the mandatory address of the president to the joint sitting of parliament; a constitutional necessity “at the commencement of the first session after each general election to the national assembly and at the commencement of the first session of each year,” according to Article 56(3).

The last parliamentary year of the incumbent assembly began on 14 August 2022, and Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has already adjourned the joint sitting twice without any apparent reason.

Now the next session is due in September, it is reported that the government has decided to call a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament on the 19th of this month for the mandatory parliamentary address of the president.

Given the backdrop, it’s not very difficult to understand why there was a difficulty for everybody to go through the motions in what is, after all, just a tradition with very little intrinsic value. PTI has made it abundantly clear that it will do whatever it takes to throw a monkey wrench in the works whenever and wherever it gets a chance; even if it means risking disturbance of the crucial IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout programme.

And the government, for its part, has no qualms about slapping sedition and terrorism charges on the opposition just to get it out of the way. So it’s not that strange, after all, that the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz)-led government hasn’t yet sent an invitation to the presidency.

Usually, the president has a simple enough job to do. He’s put there by the government, so he returns the favour by heaping praise on it. But since President Alvi must review performances of not one but two administrations, he finds himself in a particularly tight spot; especially since he’s also made it pretty clear that he’s PTI’s man in the president’s house more than an impartial president in the true, constitutional sense of the job.

Everybody knows how he feels and what he’ll say about the first eight months, when PTI was in power, but will he maintain a degree of presidential dignity and decorum when it comes to the last four months, when PML-N came back on top?

All this confusion hasn’t kept the official machinery from working, thankfully. News reports suggest that the main part of the speech is almost ready, after the presidency’s staff duly contacted all ministries in time for their feedback. But that also poses the question of whether or not the president will stick to the usual practice of just reading out what’s given to him.

His last address wasn’t entirely uneventful, with the opposition of the time – the government of today – raising slogans, surrounding him, and eventually walking out. But things could go in a completely different direction if he takes on the government of which he is the ceremonial head.

Since these presidential addresses have a sketchy history despite their very limited significance, perhaps this is something that needs a little more looking into. They quickly become a rarity whenever army chiefs take over and become presidents themselves, and became a convenient non-practice in the time of the then civilian president Ghulam Ishaq Khan as well.

Yet things went on just fine. Therefore, there’s a need to make this constitutional requirement more relevant. And that will only be possible when the president’s office becomes truly non-partisan.

However, things like that would require a manner of consensus between government and opposition. But that’s not likely to happen when all they can do is undermine and hurt the other, and also, at times, shamelessly hurt the country and the people in the process. That, unfortunately, is the problem at the centre of the paralysis with the president’s address as well.

A good start, then, could be legislating constitutional protocols relating to government-opposition exchanges on significant state matters that should, ultimately, take care of needless irritants like the one that’s made such a big deal out of a regular speech in this case.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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