Blocked by the center, for now
Months before Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf took the reins in August, the country had been engulfed by a debt crisis and gripped by economic woes that it continues to face. The Prime Minister has been focusing on wooing Pakistan’s allies and other countries to invest in Pakistan and extend financial assistance to overcome these deep-rooted economic challenges. So, it came as quite a shock for a rapidly growing Pakistani population of over 200 million, that the Punjab Assembly swiftly passed a private bill increasing the salaries of its Members of Parliament a week back.
After months of several MPAs raising their voices for an increase in their salaries, that they claim are less than MPAs of other provinces, the Punjab Public Representatives’ Bill 2019, introduced by Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s Ghazanfar Abbas, was passed. This bill was unanimously passed within five minutes, while other bills that could potentially benefit the citizens of Punjab and require more urgency are buried in perpetual indecision.
As a result of this bill, MPA salaries and allowances would increase from Rs.83,000 to a hefty Rs.200,000. Not only would the salaries of MPAs increase, but incentives, such as daily allowance, utility bills, house rent and hospitality allowances would also increase.
While it is normal for government officials and public representatives to increase their allowances, at a time like this, when the government is already walking a fiscal tightrope, is it justified for Members of Parliament to increase their allowances and overburden an already insufficient provincial budget? Prime Minister Imran Khan does not think so.
He expressed his disappointment in a tweet the day following the passing of the bill saying, “I am extremely disappointed by the decision of Punjab Assembly to raise pays and privileges of MPAs, Ministers and especially CM. Once prosperity returns to Pakistan such a move could be justified, but now, when we do not have resources to provide basic amenities to all our people, this is untenable.” According to Geo News, the Prime Minister is earning less than the federal ministers in his own cabinet and even the provincial chief ministers.
Several federal ministers reacted to the pay hike and like the Prime Minister, took to twitter to express their disappointment. Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, said, “Punjab legislature directly contravenes PTI government policy of austerity and cost cutting. Shameful behavior in these financially critical times!” Awn Chaudhary, Advisor to the Chief Minister Punjab, whose main salary already goes to Shaukat Khanum Hospital, has also tweeted saying that he “refuses to accept the increased salary from Punjab government.”
This recent development shows us that perhaps the current Chief Minister is a weak link between the center and the province and that the fault lines in the provincial government are beginning to resurface
Prime Minister Imran Khan has flexed enough political muscle to influence a reversal of this bill restricting Governor Punjab Chaudhary Sarwar to not sign off on it. Still, there has been a lot of criticism that the Prime Minister expressing his disappointment and blocking the bill just isn’t enough. But clearly there are limitations to the action Prime Minister Imran Khan can even take. After all, the Prime Minister was not even taken into confidence over this issue or the Punjab Public Representatives’ Bill 2019.
Despite criticism from his political opponents, the public and even his own party, Prime Minister Imran Khan has on several occasions, repeatedly defended Usman Buzdar as his choice for Chief Minister. This recent development shows us that perhaps the current Chief Minister is a weak link between the center and the province and that the fault lines in the provincial government are beginning to resurface.
The reality is that constitutionally Prime Minister Imran Khan’s hands are tied when it comes to provincial matters. While the 18th amendment has its benefits and has devolved important powers from the central government to provinces, it has on some levels created loopholes, giving provinces control without proper regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure check and balance from the center.