Will parliament deliver?
By I.A. Rehman, Dawn, January 1, 2009
ONE of the priority objectives in the government’s New Year resolves, if anybody is thinking of that, must be to secure a substantial improvement in parliament’s output. This is necessary, among other things, to prevent the people from once again becoming disillusioned with democracy.
As parliamentary institutions have mostly been used, especially since 1958, to legitimise the doings of autocrats, they can command the respect due to them only through exemplary performance. The strengthening of the state’s democratic foundations will depend on the extent to which the present parliament can engage with the people.
The direction and quality of parliament’s legislative work, the substance and tenor of its debates, the efficiency and sincerity with which the government responds to questions and furnishes information will determine public faith in democratic institutions. It will also provide a significant guarantee against disruption of the constitutional order.
Obviously it is necessary to ensure that in the coming months parliament performs better than it has done so far. More so in view of the fact that it has already lost some of the goodwill it started out with. The fact that the National Assembly elected in February 2008 was dominated by the two parties that had suffered heavily under authoritarian rule had aroused hopes of an early demolition of the extra-democratic edifices created by praetorian rulers over the past decades. Lack of progress in that direction is causing frustration.
The new National Assembly did not meet till almost a month after the election, contrary to the standard practice of installing newly elected representatives in power immediately after the polls. Even after making allowances for the filling of seats reserved for women and non-Muslim citizens, the delay in the transfer of power could only be attributed to the previous regime’s lack of respect for democratic proprieties. The government would do well to adopt measures to prevent such delays in future.
The National Assembly did little during the first two and a half months of the parliamentary year (March, April, May) apart from electing its speaker/deputy speaker and a prime minister. Much time was lost in scrambling a coalition cabinet and then in discovering an easy way to unscramble it. While the people waited for relief from their mounting miseries, the main coalition partners wasted week after week debating how to undo, or not to undo, the effects of Gen Musharraf’s final coup, especially his ultimate crime of sacking the apex court.
It was not until the eve of the budget session that the much talked about constitutional package was sprung upon the people. It was meant to assure the coalition partners that the task of restoring the judges had not been forgotten. It didn’t work and for some unexplained reason the government chose to put the draft of the omnibus bill on the shelf for discarded papers.
This was surprising because the draft contained a number of proposals besides the contentious issue of the judges’ restoration — about 60 of the 80 proposed amendments to the constitution were not related to the judiciary. Why did the government choose to sleep over them? Was the exercise to draft the package meant only to placate the PML-N? A serious matter if that was the case.Leaving constitutional reform aside, because that is a difficult undertaking even at the best of times, the government did not pay sufficient attention to ordinary legislation either. The prime minister was quite generous with promises in his acceptance speech. Most of them remain words. True, a new Industrial Relations Act has been adopted, and bills to amend the Pemra, Press and Books, and Freedom of Information Ordinances have been drafted. Unfortunately, the most important stakeholders are not satisfied with them. The problem could have been avoided by consulting them beforehand. At the beginning of 2009, a good eight and a half months after the general election, all that we have is two enactments worth mentioning — the Finance Act and the Industrial Relations Act, and about two scores of bills yet to be taken up.
This is not to deny some of the positive achievements during the past year — the choice of a woman as speaker of the National Assembly (who has already served as acting president more than once without affecting anybody’s mental health), the unanimous election of the prime minister, and the ouster of Gen Musharraf from the presidency. The National Assembly is said to have done better than the preceding assembly although it is grossly unfair to compare the present one to Gen Musharraf’s puppet show. A better measure is offered by the much-maligned constituent assembly.
As usual the private members have stuck to their task. They seem to have done better than the ministerial benches in terms of both quantity and quality. The evolution of mechanisms to ensure due respect and support for private members’ legislative proposals should be high on parliament’s agenda.
Nor should one be unmindful of the government’s difficulties. For a better part of the year parliamentary affairs had been condemned to a corner in the crowded law, justice and human rights ministry and the new minister has had little time to grasp his primary responsibilities. A number of bills are stuck because the standing committees are not yet done with them or some committees are still without heads. But the government will not be able to go far with such excuses because it has the means to overcome them.
Besides, the people expect some movement on developing a democratic political culture that men in authority are fond of recalling. Nobody was happy with the thin attendance during the joint session of parliament when the latter was supposed to be discussing matters of (the state’s) life and death. The absence of ministers from parliament’s sessions, especially when they are expected to answer questions, annoys the people a great deal. The impression that many members drag themselves to the Houses of parliament only in the hope of finding some ministers to sign petitions lying in their large pockets is probably incorrect but it needs to be removed nonetheless.
Above all, there should be no doubt in the minds of government representatives and parliamentarians that Pakistan will not be able to resume its journey towards its democratic destiny unless two milestones are reached. First, the basic law must be purged of the pollutants forced into it by autocrats over the past 30 years and more. And, secondly, the sooner the state starts respecting its obligations as a federation the better it will be.
Some will argue that the country’s multidimensional crisis does not permit the luxury of the state’s reconstruction and parliamentary dynamism. The answer to them is that only a democratically reconditioned state and an effective parliament will enable Pakistan to navigate the present crises.