Jan 25, 2010

Pakistan and parliamentary democracy

By Syed Fakhar Imam

The Parliament is the apex institution of representation and legitimacy. According to the 1973 Constitution, parliamentary government is one of the key elements defining the basic structure of the constitution. Federalism, fundamental rights, independence of judiciary, and the Islamic way of life are the other key components. Parliament is the ultimate custodian of the popular will.

Parliaments have had uncertain periods of existence in Pakistan. The fate of the first Constituent Assembly was sealed by Governor General Ghulam Mohammad’s act of dissolution. Though declared unconstitutional by the Sindh High Court, unfortunately in appeal by the government the federal court headed by Chief Justice Munir, upheld as legal and constitutional Ghulam Mohammad’s action of dissolution on technical grounds. The infamous judgment based on law of necessity became the bogey of Pakistani politics. Military interventions have hampered normal nurturing of democratic governance and a normal democratic political environment did not take root.

The inaugural session of the current parliament was addressed by President Asif Ali Zardari as was the first session of the second Parliamentary year. This address, which lays out the outline of the government’s policy for the Parliamentary year, is a constitutional requirement under article 56(3) of the constitution. By addressing the parliament President Zardari fulfilled his constitutional obligation.

In contrast General Pervez Musharraf as President failed to meet this constitutional requirement on three occasions. By not fulfilling this mandatory constitutional obligation he showed his contempt for Parliament. He was visibly upset during his first address to the Parliament’s inaugural session when the opposition heckled him during his address as had been the tradition in the past. But for a man not legitimately elected it was too much to face Members opposed to him.

Parliament is the major national forum for debating all important national issues that confront the nation and its people. One of the major issues facing the nation is the "war on terror". For the first time since 9/11 this Parliament discussed the national security in an "in camera session". The government through the heads of the security and intelligence services interacted with the parliamentarians on the sensitive security issues. It may be appropriate time now to hold a similar session for the Parliamentarians in the near future.

When such issues are debated and analysed, the parliamentarians inform the heads of the specialised institutions about the people’s feelings regarding appropriate corrective measures that need to be undertaken. This adds credibility to decision making and lends support and legitimacy to the process. Such parliamentary discussions give support to the armed forces in their action in the Malakand region, South Waziristan and other FATA areas.

This Parliament has the distinction of being able to discuss the defence budget. The government was able to persuade the armed forces command to give breakdown of the expenditure under different heads barring the secretive or sensitive areas in the two finance bills presented to the National Assembly in June 2008 and June 2009. For nearly 50 years the defence budget used to be presented in one line without giving any details.

Provincial autonomy has been a consistent demand of Balochistan and the other provinces. The federal government by introducing, debating and passing the Balochistan Package in the Parliament has taken big strides in assuaging many of the demands of the people. By arriving at an agreement on the National Finance Award, the provinces have been benefitted. Balochistan has been the biggest beneficiary followed by NWFP (Pukhtoonkhwa), by Sindh and by Punjab. This award is a feather in the cap of the federal government and the provincial governments.

Oversight is one of major functions of the Parliament. It will become the focus of major attraction if issues relating to the common man’s needs, such as sugar prices, energy shortages, food security, and national security, are considered by Parliament and its committees. The main task of Parliament is to secure full discussion and ventilation of all matters. When ministers explain and publicly justify their policies and actions, the Parliament becomes the custodian of the liberties of the people.

Parliamentary committees give the legislators the time and scope to discuss issues in depth in congenial atmosphere, with a greater possibility of consensus. The Constitutional Reforms Committee is reviewing powers such as dissolution of the National Assembly; appointments of services chiefs; appointment of governors; appointment of Chief Election Commissioner; and the renaming of the NWFP.

For the first time in Pakistan’s recent parliamentary history, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, Nisar Ali Khan, has been made chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Though worldwide a normal convention in parliamentary systems, in Pakistan it was not followed in the last six parliaments. The credit goes to the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians.

The PAC has scrutinised audit reports, holding the ministries and their attached departments to account. But many reports submitted by the Auditor General’s office to the PAC are a decade or more old. Examining them becomes a meaningless exercise as most of the responsible persons have either retired or some have even died. The pending audit reports should be disposed off expeditiously and the contemporary reports be taken up. This will make parliamentary oversight of the executive effective and meaningful. The PAC and the other parliamentary committees need to have better support by hiring experts and professionals.

Recently the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education invited professors, teachers, and administrators to discuss the National Education Policy. The Committee Members and the Federal Minister for Education in this public hearing interacted with these experts and answered on how the goals set out in the policy can be attained. Other parliamentary committees should also hold public hearings as this adds value to overall decision making through such inputs by professionals and experts.

Under the constitution, the National Assembly is required to meet for a minimum of 130 days in a Parliamentary year. Two days of holidays between the working days are counted towards working days. In the last parliament (2002-2007) the National Assembly met on an average of 300 hours in a parliamentary year. In the UK, the House of Commons meets normally for a minimum of 1600 hours in a parliamentary year.

Hopefully this Parliament will show a greater desire to deal with national issues and people’s problems. One of the main ways to pursue this objective is to create an environment for the work ethic. Both the Parliament and the committees can meet more often to highlight national issues and ways and means to solve them.

The parliament may also consider setting up a committee on ethics, as the one in the US Senate, which looks into any alleged misconduct by the parliamentarians and the parliamentary staff.

Slowly but surely a parliamentary system seems to be evolving. We ought to be patient and understand that resorting to quick fix solutions has not served us well and plodding along and persevering with what is in place may serve our interests as a Nation more appropriately in the long term.

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