Critical times for parliament | Dawn

This article was published in Dawn on December 09, 2017 and is available at the following link

THE recent appearance of Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, before a Supreme Court bench in Karachi to explain the poor state of drinking water supply and sewerage systems in his province once again illustrates a major imbalance that has occurred among the three branches of the state. The event shows that the executive has apparently failed in its responsibility to provide a basic service to its citizens and the top court of the country had to intervene to address the situation.

Although the legislature is charged with the responsibility of oversight of the executive, and parliamentary committees corresponding to each government department are constituted to hold the relevant departments to account, one has not seen the concerned Sindh Assembly committees such as the standing committee on public health engineering or on irrigation carry out their oversight functions. This is not just the case with Sindh; legislatures in Pakistan, both federal and provincial, have generally not been able to assert their supremacy, especially where it comes to oversight of the executive.

Two recent examples will suffice to underscore the point. The provincial governments had been delaying the passage of local government acts and therefore holding of the local government elections for years. Provincial assemblies and their standing committees on local government hardly ever considered this wilful delay or held any provincial government to account on the subject. It was the Supreme Court which followed up on the matter and ultimately the provincial governments had to pass laws governing local governments. The local government elections were subsequently made possible just because of the perseverance of the judiciary. It was sad that the legislatures played almost no effective role in pushing the provincial and federal governments to hold local government elections.

There are several parliamentary committees in the provinces which hardly ever meet in their five-year term.

Conducting the population census was yet another key issue which remained pending since 2008 when the new census became due. The National Assembly, the Senate and their committees failed to play an effective role in nudging the federal government to hold the census. It was again the judiciary which made the population census possible ultimately in 2017 after a delay of nine years. The question of using the provisional results of 2017 census for undertaking delimitation of the constituencies for the upcoming general election due in 2018 is awaiting resolution through the passage of the 24th Constitutional Amendment. The National Assembly has passed the amendment but the Senate has not been able to assemble sufficient members to pass it. The political parties in the Senate have not been able to resolve their differences to pass the amendment and if the stalemate persists, the matter may again end up in a court of law.

Finally, recently, when the Punjab government and the federal government entered into two separate and highly controversial agreements with a religious party, parliament and the provincial assemblies once again largely remained ineffective in raising and debating the issue.

All these examples indicate that the legislatures have not been able to play their due role in the timely resolution of national and provincial issues or in holding the respective executives to account. The resulting vacuum has, therefore, been filled by other institutions such as the judiciary. This state of imbalance where one branch of the state is unintentionally abdicating its due role, is weakening the democratic setup. Serious introspection is needed to look into the causes of this state of affairs.

Apparently, the control of the top political party leadership over the respective parliamentary parties has been too tight. Party discipline is desirable but the lack of initiative on the part of legislators indicates a major flaw in the system.

Top party leaders will have to lead by example and their attendance and participation in parliamentary proceedings must inspire their lawmakers. Attendance of party leaders of both the PML-N and PTI in the National Assembly has been quite disappointing. The PPP top leadership is not even a part of the legislatures.

Parliamentary committees are one of the most important vehicles of accountability and oversight of the executive. In a majority of cases, provincial assemblies’ parliamentary committees are not even free to hold their meetings. The rules require that the committees meet when either the assembly or the speaker refers a business to the committees. There are a number of parliamentary committees in the provinces which hardly ever meet in their five-year term after these elect their chairpersons.

Activism of a parliamentary committee largely depends on its chairperson. Chairpersons need to be given sufficient independence by their respective parties to undertake their responsibilities. Chairpersons should be elected on the basis of their aptitude and past experience. Political parties should develop a system of evaluating the performance of their legislators and committee chairs; in case a committee chair is not active, he or she may even be replaced before completing the five-year term.

Ruling parties should not discourage committee chairs or committee members to undertake oversight of the executive. The committee chairs and members should also guard their independence and actively discharge their duties as chairs and members of the parliamentary parties. This display of independence should not bother the party leadership as proceedings of the committees are generally not open to media. Oversight in the committees and the resulting corrective steps by the government can save the latter from major embarrassments in full glare of the media and public.

Most importantly, political parties should carefully select their candidates for the upcoming general election. Legislators should, in addition to constituency-level work, be able to contribute to policy debates both within the committees and the plenary sessions. Political parties should organise regular capacity-building sessions for their legislators on a variety of subjects to enable them to be effective parliamentarians.

If parliamentary democracy has to firmly take root in Pakistan, parliament, the provincial legislatures and their committees will need to be more active and effective and protect their turf through improved performance.

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