The Empty Senate

Spearhead Analysis – 19.04.2017

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Parliaments across the world are not only the highest legislative authority, but are the backbone of any democratic order. Elected politicians represent the will of the people, enact precedent setting laws, debate the affairs of the state, and contribute to political, social, and economic change. Translating the will of a large population is not easy, and it is only right that these office bearers instill in themselves not only an acute sense of justice, but also a keen sense of responsibility- towards each other, the august platform they exemplify, and to the society they represent. But more often, especially in countries with a paltry record of governance, the parliament becomes a space reflective of privilege, extravaganza, capriciousness, authoritarianism, abstraction- and on better days- absence. 

In a recent administrative realization, the chairman Senate Raza Rabbani refused to conduct proceedings of the Upper House after he found an incomplete quorum for yet another session. Not only that, he also offered to resign in protest, return his protocol, and postpone the Senate session for an indefinite period of time against constant absence of ministers from the House. The chairman lamented that none of the ministers attended the proceedings since the current Senate started operating in 2015, compromising the prestige and sanctity of the House. Another senator likened the lax attitude of legislators to that of a ‘trader’s consortium’. 

While the stark absence of ministers, lawmakers, and politicians is nothing new, it is only now that such an attitude is not only derailing the democratic gains made in the last few years but is also disrupting critical evaluation of social and political issues highlighted in the parliament. A majority and presence is needed to pass laws, change decisions, and discuss future progress- and anything less means only a handful are actually making decisions. 

The parliament, as a space, is political as well as neutral; what this means is while it is a space where different and often opposing views are consolidated, it is also where various conflicting opinions have a space to thrive. ‘Walk-outs’ have been a sure way for political parties to exert pressure, stir emotions and support, and gain media coverage and public attention. But mostly these ‘walk-outs’ are confined to specific issues of discussion- and only when there is a large presence of lawmakers; anything less will witness empty seats and silent gestures. In truth, the non-presence of ministers, lawmakers, and politicians is emblematic of the PML-N model and is reflective of an uneasy tiff between not only the government and the opposition, but also between the center and provinces. Where it is important to maintain a balance of power, it is also essential that the parliamentary space be free of party politics and partisan attitudes.

Veritably, the chairman’s refusal and criticism mainly stems from the Senate not being given due status in the power equation- a constitutional right that is being overlooked. The Senate has an important role to play in the promotion of national cohesion and harmony, and is a permanent House which symbolizes a process of continuity in national affairs. The term of its members is six years, however, one half of its members retire after every three years. The Senate ensures equal representation to all the federating units and dispels doubts and apprehensions regarding deprivation and exploitation. By undermining the strength and role of the Senate in politics, representatives are not fully utilizing its effective presence in improving democratic procedures and constitutional governance. In addition, the ministers dislike for parliament trickles down to other levels of government, bureaucracy, and public institutions- ensuring that all levels operate unprofessionally and in essence inefficiently. 

Our ministers, lawmakers, politicians, and public servants enjoy an inordinate amounts of benefits including a healthy salary package, protocol, social value, and political power- it is only right that these advantages be utilized for the good of the country and its people. When it is not, the people should atleast have the right to hold them accountable on their absences.