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Uphold the parliament’s authority in Pakistan

by I A Rehman, 3 December 2008

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Dawn, 20 November 2008

PRIME Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s oft-repeated pledge that his government will uphold the parliament’s supremacy in all matters could, if earnestly honoured, solve a host of the problems of governance in Pakistan.

A cursory look at Pakistan’s history is sufficient to establish the huge harm caused by repeated denial of the parliament’s sovereign authority. Apart from the bar to its supremacy created by mixing belief with statecraft, the parliament has more often than not existed and worked subject to the will and whim of the executive. Beginning with Ghulam Mohammad’s repudiation of the parliament’s sovereign status, no executive has shown it the respect it deserves. While all institutions of responsible government have declined none has suffered a worse fate than the parliament.

In addition, the executive’s arbitrary dismissals of elected legislatures, disregard for its constitutional obligations to them and a routine of bypassing them — for instance, by issuing ordinances hours before the parliament is due to begin a new session — have grossly devalued the very concept of the parliament’s supremacy. Not only the people but parliamentarians too seem to have forgotten that the parliament is much more than a debating forum, and that it is responsible not only for the executive’s accountability but also for checking its actions before they are taken.

It will thus not be easy for the government to abandon the legacy of absolute rulers and learn to respect the parliament’s authority. The task will require consolidation of the principle of responsible government through its consistent practice. A major step in the desired direction will be to increase the parliament’s working days per year.

The constitution requires the parliament to meet thrice a year, with the interval between any two sessions not exceeding four months. The National Assembly is required to meet for at least 130 days in a year of its life and the Senate for 90 days. Unfortunately these minimum scales of the parliamentary calendar have usually been treated in the past as optimum requirements. The provision that in the event of a two-day adjournment of a house the days off are counted as working days is generously exploited to meet the quota of sittings. As a result the citizens get the impression that attendance in the parliament has become a part-time diversion for their representatives who quite happily trade their power for privilege.

The present government also has failed to realise the need to ensure that the parliament meets for most of the days in a year and that recesses are brief and come after long periods of serious parliamentary work. The National Assembly’s parliamentary year began in March (after a unconscionable delay caused by the Musharraf regime) and over the intervening eight months it has met less often and for smaller periods than required. This means that over the next four months it should follow a heavy schedule in order to meet the constitution’s lowest ceiling. However, the parliament should meet for a longer period and found a tradition of its membership being accepted as a whole-time commitment.

Some time ago a government spokesman tried to reject demands for convening the parliament with the excuse of lack of business before it. Most probably he was referring to a lack of fresh legislative proposals in his own bag. Also he took a narrow view of the role of the legislature in a democratic polity. A review of the bills that were pending in the previous National Assembly and which lapsed on its dissolution is obviously called for. The list includes bills aimed at setting up a national human rights commission and protecting women against domestic violence. Further, the need to subject the large number of ordinances issued in periods of authoritarian rule to parliament’s scrutiny is manifest as no democratic polity can forever bear the burden of laws made without due sanction.

Above all, legislation is only a part of a parliament’s responsibilities, though it may be the most important part. Its other major functions include discussing national policies before they are adopted, providing the legislators opportunities to discuss the executive’s day-to-day conduct and other problems faced by the people, and offering the citizen’s information on all matters of concern to them.

The gains to the nation from keeping the parliament permanently in session will be enormous.

To begin with, public faith in democratic governance will be strengthened if they find their representatives at their posts most of the time and the system of parliamentary oversight of the executive’s performance is in place. When the parliament is not only supreme but is also seen to be supreme the people’s link with politics will be revived. Their due involvement with politics is the first requisite of a democratic dispensation.

Extended parliamentary sessions will make for detailed discussions on bills, especially constitution amendment and finance bills. It may be possible to implement the proposal to provide for more time for a review of revenue expenditures and development works prior to the tabling of the next year’s budget. A substantial increase in the parliament’s working days should create possibilities for fuller debates on the reports the executive has to make to the parliament — such as the report on the principles of policy and reports of the Finance Commission and other statutory bodies.

It will also be possible to pay prompt attention to unforeseen developments — public hardships, disasters, the executive’s excesses, failures of law enforcing agencies, et al. — through adjournment motions, official statements, or call attention notices.

The question hour will be rehabilitated as the pressure to dispense with it will decrease. The provision of more time for questions per year will raise the volume of information made available to the people. It will be possible to answer questions sooner than now, and the element of transparency in governance will increase.

Another significant gain should be the much-needed strengthening of the system of private members’ bills as more days will be available for this activity. The spirit of democracy, especially of the participatory form, demands the largest possible space for private members’ legislative initiatives. Unfortunately this part of parliamentary activity seems to have been deliberately undermined in Pakistan for many long years. Quite often the establishment has displayed inexplicable hostility to private members’ bills. A greater respect for proposals from non-official quarters will help the growth of democratic norms.

That more parliamentary activity will increase the ministers’ workload, that the government will be obliged to remain on its toes and that the ministers will have to spend more time in the parliament than in gallivanting around family estates cannot be denied. But then those who stand for the supremacy of the parliament cannot at the same time expect it to curtail its watchdog role.