Democratic process taking roots?


M Ziauddin,

The PMLN Quaid, Nawaz Sharif seemingly did not take too seriously his obligations towards the 14th National Assembly while he was the elected leader of the house by virtue of which he had walked into the office of the Prime Minister and kept occupying it until he was disqualified by the Supreme Court for not being ‘Sadiq’ and ‘Ameen’ as per Constitutional Article 63 (1)(f).
Imran Khan, the PTI Chief, the main contender for the coveted position of the leader of the house in the 15th National Assembly to be convened following the July 25, 2018 general elections in the country had almost the identical dismissive approach towards the 14th one which was dissolved on May 31, 2018 after completing its full five year term.
Still, statistically speaking the performance of the 14th National Assembly appears to have significantly improved over that of the 13th. On the face of it, it appears as if democracy is taking roots, slowly, deliberately and gradually. This is how it should be. There is no such thing as switching off and switching on during the period when a society is in a transitional phase passing from autocratic to democratic systems.
The process of handing over of the reins of the government by forces of autocracy and the process of taking over these reins by the forces of democracy does not happen automatically. On its way to its logical end it takes many twists and turns.
Historically in Pakistan’s context this phase has remained highly vulnerable and prone to accidents.
Accidents have occurred in 1958, in 1977 and in 1999 with the transition process abruptly halted by non-democratic forces setting back the process of democratization of the society by decades. These accidents have happened for a number of reasons. But personal ambitions of the three men in uniform—Ayub, Zia and Musharraf—have, however, played a significant role in these accidents.
Here in gist is the performance of the 14th NA: Despite political controversies in the past five years and despite a sense surrounding it that it may collapse any day—a life of moment to moment, virtually—the 14th National Assembly took up an unprecedented legislative agenda by approving 205 bills as compared to 134 and 51 bills passed by 13th and 12th National Assemblies during their five-year terms, respectively.
The current period of transition has luckily survived for almost a decade with one transfer of power having taken place—the very first in Pakistan’s history— from one elected government to another elected one. And now it seems the country is set for another smooth change of guards—from one elected government to another one. No doubt like the previous five-year tenure, the one that finished on May 31, 2018 had also remained highly vulnerable. That it did not collapse before completing its full term was not because there were no disruptive elements on both sides of the fence but because the risks involved the day after seemed more gigantic than the ones that had confronted Ayub, Zia and Musharraf.
What is more reassuring is the fact that the elected Parliament seemed to have learnt the democratic ropes. Thus according to a detailed report prepared by the FAFEN it was indeed a highly satisfactory performance of the outgoing NA during its five-year tenure.
The House approved several important pieces of legislation, including five constitutional amendments during 56 sessions comprising 495 sittings, that provided for setting up military courts for an initial period of two years and their subsequent extension for another two years, reallocation of National Assembly seats among federating units on the basis of fresh census results, electoral reforms and the merger of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Elections Act, 2017, which reformed and consolidated the erstwhile eight separate election laws of the country, also saw light of the day during the term of the 14th Assembly.
Other important government legislations included reforms in the criminal justice system providing for compensation of litigation costs, institutionalization of alternate dispute resolution mechanisms, witnesses’ protection and expeditious disposal of lawsuits. The House also legislated for the right to information, whistleblowers’ protection, climate change and institutional reforms. In addition to the legislation, the House adopted 209 resolutions making recommendations to the government on the issues concerning foreign affairs, economy, internal security, education, health and others.
Keeping the tradition set by the previous Assembly alive, the House passed 23 private members’ bills as well. Overall 237 private members’ bills were introduced in the Lower House. Among the parliamentary parties, MQM lawmakers were most keen towards introducing the private members’ legislation as they sponsored nearly one third (75) bills during the reporting period. Private lawmakers of the ruling party, PML-N sponsored 53 bills, PPPP lawmakers 33 and PTI lawmakers 26. Moreover, legislators from two or more political parties collaborated in sponsoring nine private members’ bills.
The lawmakers kept a close vigil on the executive by raising 13,912 questions, moving 533 Calling Attention Notices, and holding discussions on 45 Motions under Rule 259.
During the reporting period, 194 lawmakers of 16 parliamentary parties, including 56 women and 138 men, exercised their right to ask questions on the floor of the House. Women lawmakers asked 7,909 (57%) questions while men 6,003 (43%) questions. The government replied to 10,926 (79%) out of 13,912 questions while 2,977 (21%) questions remained unaddressed during the term of the Assembly.
Of 533 CANs submitted during five years, the House took up 424 (80%) CANs during the proceedings and sought government response on the issues of public importance. However, the House showed a dismal performance in taking up the Motions under Rule 259 as only 45 out of 329 motions – 26 government and 303 private – came under discussion during the term of the Assembly. All of the government motions except one were discussed while only 20 private motions were taken up for discussion.
The 14th National Assembly passed 18 amendments to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business by introducing some meaningful reforms. The composition of the Public Accounts Committee was changed to give representation to the Senate making it more powerful to oversight the financial discipline of the executive. In a historic first, the previous Assembly had amended the Rules of Procedure allowing the standing committees to scrutinize ministerial budgetary proposals before their inclusion in the federal budget and make recommendations on these proposals. Further strengthening the parliamentary role in the budget-making, the 14th Assembly bound the government ministries to inform the standing committees about incorporation of their recommendations in the final budgetary proposals. In another amendment, the House mandated the recitation of Naat before the commencement of its formal proceedings.
During five years of the Assembly, 306 (89%) out of 342 lawmakers actively participated in the House business by sponsoring agenda items and taking part in the plenary discussions. However, the lawmakers’ attendance showed a declining trend over the period of five years with annual average attendance falling from 222 (65%) legislators per sitting during first year to 189 (55%) lawmakers per sitting during the last year.
The outgoing Assembly was also unique in terms of the elections to the offices of the Speaker and the Leader of the House. The Assembly had to choose the Speaker and the Leaders of the House twice during its five-year term. The re-election to the office of the Speaker was necessitated by the de-seating of Speaker Ayaz Sadiq by an election tribunal which had declared his election as the Member of National Assembly null and void and ordered re-poll in his constituency NA-122. Following his re-election to the House, he became the only parliamentarian having been chosen as the Speaker twice during a single term of the Assembly. The re-election to the office of the Prime Minister took place due to the disqualification of former Premier Nawaz Sharif from holding public office by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in July 2017. Moreover, the House also witnessed the address by the Presidents of China, Turkey and Indonesia to the Joint Sessions of both Houses of the Parliament.

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