By Maleeha Lodhi
July 06, 2014
Despite frequent declarations by Pakistan's political leaders about their commitment to parliamentary supremacy, their actual conduct in the legislature hasn't lived up to this principle. The National Assembly has underperformed in its first parliamentary year, while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has shown little interest in making Parliament a key part of governance. This is evidenced in many ways. Its most striking manifestation has been the fact that the Sharif government failed to enact a single law in its first year in power. The ruling party would defend this unspectacular record by claiming that the National Assembly did adopt some bills but they were held up by the Senate, which the government does not control. However evolving a parliamentary consensus and mobilising support in the legislature to ensure the passage of laws is among the government's principal responsibilities in a democracy. Offering alibis for legislative failure is not among those responsibilities.
The performance of Pakistan's 14th National Assembly, which just completed its first year, has been uninspiring. The Prime Minister, as Leader of the House, rarely attended Assembly proceedings and made parliamentary history by not showing up in the Senate even once in his first year in power. This set an example for senior ministers who routinely failed to attend the Assembly. A day after the budget debate began, for example, the front rows of the treasury benches were empty. Similarly in the Senate, not a single member of the treasury benches was present when the budget debate began. Opposition MPs have frequently drawn the Speaker's attention to the lack of quorum in the National Assembly and disregard of Parliament shown by the ruling party. These complaints have usually fallen on deaf ears. A number of factors lie behind the present National Assembly's unedifying record. Four are important. The first concerns the ruling party's attitude towards parliamentary institutions. The second is the stance of the newest parliamentary party, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI). The third transcends party alignments, and has to do with the fact that a significant number of parliamentary members still construe their role as gaining access to the system of privilege and patronage rather than representing their constituents on policy. The fourth factor is the tendency by parties, since the rise of the country's 24/7 broadcast media, to prioritise sending their representatives to talk shows rather than urge them to engage in parliamentary debate. The combined result of these factors has been to devalue Parliament's role.
As it is the majority party that sets the tone and substance for parliamentary activity, its attitude is the fundamental reason for turning this Assembly into a passive rather than active forum. This attitude seems to be a hangover from Prime Minister Sharif's past two stints in office, when he treated Parliament principally as a means to maintain his party in power rather than an instrument of governance or as a forum to initiate and shape laws and articulate and debate policy.
This time too, the ruling party has failed to encourage the Assembly to play a more effective role in both its legislative and deliberative functions. The irony is that the governing party's overwhelming majority has not inspired confidence in its leaders to energise Parliament into playing a more active role. The conduct of the second largest Opposition party in the Assembly, PTI, has also contributed to this outcome. A new political force could have breathed life and vigour to parliamentary proceedings. But the party has been unable to decide whether to take the Assembly seriously or to question its legitimacy.
A third factor influencing Parliament's ability to be more effective is the kind of representative that remains dominant among its membership. For these representatives, elected office is a vehicle to gain access to state patronage and not about public policy. They are therefore oblivious of their obligation to represent their constituents' collective interests in shaping policies and laws.
A fourth factor is related to the 24/7 broadcast media. This has increasingly become a competing forum for political debate, with politicians giving priority to appearing on television over showing up in Parliament. Media engagement may be a political imperative of the new environment. But that doesn't mean parliamentarians should regard television appearances as a substitute for parliamentary activism.
For these different reasons Parliament has not played the pivotal role it should. It is ironic that for much of its history Pakistan has been bereft of representative institutions but when it has them, its members are unwilling to lend substance to them.