Pakistan: Tethered Parliament – OpEd


Former Prime Minister Imran Khan is making raucous calls and cries in streets to pressure the government to call an early elections. Mr. Khan marches into Islamabad every now and then; he even seeks military’s and court’s intervention on his behalf to somehow morally oblige the incumbent cabinet to resign and call an early elections. However, Mr. Khan is not the first of his kind, since 1947 every institution has been relevant except for the parliament which has always been in shambles. Parliamentarians have never deemed Parliament as a forum for serious deliberation, reaching consensus, bridging differences among parties and representing people’s aspirations. 

A Historical detour into parliamentary tales suggest that it has been treated like a scraped paper which is disposed off at slight inconvenience. The in-famous troika of Ghulam Muhammad, Iskander Mirza and Ayub khan exploited the petty political differences within Muslim League and other parties: dismissing Prime Minister Khawaja Nizam, dissolving the 1st constituent assembly and later on abrogating the 1956 constitution by imposing martial law regime. The tumultuous 1950’s was characterised by Hobbesian power politics in the state of nature at the cost of establishing a solid democratic culture and impregnable parliamentary practices.

Pakistan adopted parliamentary form of government in 1956 and 1973. In Parliamentary democracies, parliament is considered sovereign lawmaking body representing the people. It is the exclusive right of parliament to make and amend the constitution which regulates the administration of any state. In Pakistan, however, Parliament has never evolved as an efficient and productive institution.  Reasons ascribed to such fatal fate of parliament in Pakistan are absence of strong democratic party systems, Leviatanic establishment and weak civil society. All these factors hampers parliament to be a peoples’ sovereign body. 

Political parties in Pakistan revolves around personalities and not ideals. A cursory look at established democracies around the world, especially the conservatives and labours; the republicans and democrats in Britain and America respectively, indicates that political parties ascribe to certain ideals and represent principled opinion on major debates along political spectrum. However, in Pakistan, dynastic politics dominate party politics and these do not have any principled position on any given policy matter and their stance conveniently shifts depending on whether they sit on treasury or opposition benches. Individuals dominates the  central executive body and parliamentary  party which merely acts as rubber stamp resulting in no serious debate. Conveniently they flout fundamental parliamentary conventions and undermine parliament.

The impotence of the parliament is evident if one studies PILDAT’s report titled, “Four years of the 15th National Assembly of Pakistan”’. Some startling facts from the report are as follows: average attendance of MNAs in first four years of the 15th National Assembly stands at 63%; the 15th National Assembly could not dispose of nearly 59% of planned agenda items in 87 sittings; average attendance of MNAs in first four years of the 15th National Assembly stands at 63%; Imran Khan as Prime Minister only attended a total of 34 or 11% sittings of the 15th National Assembly; Shehbaz Sharif, as opposition leader attendance was merely 29% in four years.

The 2006 Charter of Democracy declared ,“bipartisan working of the parliament through [a] powerful committee system” signifies the importance of committee system in the governance of parliamentary democracy. Committees keeps check on ministries, receive public petition, issues subpoena, ask for papers or record, hold public hearings in order to ensure that public trust is well guarded against any irregularities. However, Pakistan has a dismal record in this matter. Late I. A. Rehman argued that committee system in Pakistan is still in initial phase even after 75 years. A report titled, “Parliament’s Role in Pakistan’s Democratic Transition” by Crisis group highlights various instances when PIA, ECP, establishment, higher Judiciary, and even ministries blatantly refused to answer parliamentary committees. On one instance Senator Farhat Allah Babar said, “No executive organ had been so contemptuous towards a  committee of the house” referring to the defence ministry when they refused public scrutiny of the defence establishment.

Similarly, establishment and judiciary have also undermined the authority of parliament as supreme legislative body of the people. Military coups and soft intervention compromises the people’s mandate solely given to elected members. Furthermore, judiciary has a history of impairing parliamentary authority that goes well beyond the powers of judicial review. From the Doctrine of law of necessity to the 1996 verdict of supreme court; whereby, it declared that parliament cannot amend the ‘basic structure’ or ‘salient features’ of the constitution not even with the two third majority. Borrowing from the similar logic Supreme Court rejected the amended appointment procedure of judges in 18th amendment. The dilemma is that 1973 constitution does not even clearly outlines any salient features and therefore the 1996 verdict remains as a insurmountable hindrance to parliamentary sovereignty. 

Pakistan, this year in august, celebrated its 75th independence year which seems a fairly long journey, yet in retrospect we have hardly achieved enough in terms of robust parliamentary democracy. Parliament, repository of the will of the public, is largely inefficient. Political parties and their parliamentary parties only ensure that statutory obligations of parliament are met and then all politics, debates, diplomacy and policy formulations are done behind close doors. Unfortunately, Pakistani politics did not embrace a strong democratic culture after all these years. However, moving forward, all political parties and stake holders need to understand that a robust and resilient parliament is answer to all the political uncertainty surrounding Pakistani politics today. 

Ammar Firdous is a graduate of Forman Christian College University, Lahore, Pakistan

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