Spearhead Opinion – 07.03.2019
By Farrukh Karamat
Senior Research Coordinator, Spearhead Research
During the period 2013-2018 as an elected member of the National Assembly, the Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) managed to attend 24 out of the more than 500 sessions of the National Assembly. Dismal performance by a Parliamentarian and an elected representative of the people by any standard. In addition, the PTI resorted to exhibiting their ‘street power’ through a lengthy Dharna that lasted almost four months and seriously impacted the efficient functioning of the State. The PTI Chairman is on record having stated that those sitting in National Assembly are defending looters and plunderers, and he used the word “Lanat” (a mild swear word) to express his views on the Parliament in the not too distant past. As per data gathered by the National Assembly and Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN), Imran Khan appeared in six of the 34 sessions of the national assembly till January 2019. The record post January 2019 is no better, as the Prime Minister continues to avoid the sessions of the Parliament. In contrast, Prime Minster Yousaf Raza Gillani, despite all his faults, attended almost 90 per cent of the Parliamentary sessions.
Soon after taking oath in mid-August 2018 and assuming the position of the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan categorically pledged on the floor of the House to address questions every fortnight on the same pattern as the British Parliament. In September last year, the government moved the house to make it mandatory for prime ministers to respond to questions on government affairs. The proposed rule was to introduce ‘Prime Minister’s Question Hour’ on the first Wednesday of each session for answering questions on matters relating to the overall substantive policy or the performance of the government. Unfortunately, those lofty ideals were not followed nor implemented and the Prime Minister continues to be conspicuous by his absence from the National Assembly sessions.
Having criticized his predecessor for staying away from the Assembly and having stated that this affected the attendance of Ministers and other ruling party leaders, it is sad to see that he too is now treading the same path. Clearly, while the Executive remains accountable, they do not feel obliged to be answerable to the National Assembly, thus seriously impacting the Parliament’s efficiency and efficacy in terms being an institution for policy and law making. In sharp contrast to Pakistan, the British Prime Minister (a country and system that Imran Khan repeatedly refers to) regularly attends the sessions to answer the questions and issues raised in the House.
In Pakistan, the debate on issues (if it can be termed ‘constructive’ debate) has moved from the floor of the National Assembly to the primetime talk shows on Television and on the street, which is really contrary to the true spirit of the Parliament. It is in effect a failure of the parliament, where the democracy and democratic norms are not being implemented in a constructive and participative manner for effective governance. The failure to invite the opposition leaders at the reception of the Saudi Crown Prince, is a glaring example of the arbitrary decision making patterns. If the people of Pakistan have elected those representatives, it is the responsibility of the sitting government to respect the elected parliamentarians, especially when those individuals have not been convicted of the crimes that they are accused of by a ‘contentious’ accountability enforcing organization. Similarly, having lambasted the previous Government over the Model Town tragedy, the present Government has miserably failed over the Sahiwal massacre. It is easy to criticize but far harder to improve on the criticized issues. I am reminded of the famous lines from Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.
The Leadership and Leaders have to set an example within a well-functioning parliamentary democracy, as their attitude and involvement defines the performance of that Democracy. The presence of the Prime Minister is vital as it affects the interest of the Ministers and the members of the parliament. What we unfortunately witness during the sessions of the National Assembly are vacant seats and disinterested Minsters slouching and sleeping in their seats, barring a few active members. The parliament’s task is not just to elect the leaders after the people have made their choices, it is to legislate to improve the governance structures and these leaders are answerable and accountable to the members of the assembly and the people of Pakistan. Parliament’s effectiveness is vital and that is only possible with the continuous presence of the Prime Minister and his cabinet for constructive and unbiased debate. We witnessed some cohesion within the Parliament in the National interest, during the recent tension with India and that is the spirit and involvement that the Parliamentarians need to exhibit for the effective functioning of the democratic norms.
Unfortunately, while the people elect representatives to represent and serve them in the Parliament, these same elected representatives become Masters of the people that they are meant to serve. In the process the people become the Servants of their own Servants. This mind-set pervades the broader institutional structures in Pakistan and as a result the life of the common man continues to become more difficult as they struggle to meet the demands of their Servants who have become Masters. Till such time that the Leaders in the Parliament and the Parliamentarians understand that they are accountable not only to the House that elected them, but also to the people of Pakistan we will continue to witness a weak institutional and governance edifice devoid of cohesion and floundering to establish a truly functional democracy. As a starter, the Prime Minister needs to ensure that he attends the sessions of the parliament to set an example for the much-needed improvement in the institutional functioning of the State.