Institutional Capacity and Governance in Pakistan: A Case Study of Parliament | Wilson Center

The following article was published by Wilson Center in 2018 in a book title ‘Pakistan’s Institutions: We Know They Matter, But How Can They Work Better?. This article is available at the following link

Pakistan’s constitution provides for a federal parliamentary system of government, with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. The federal legislature is a bicameral Parliament composed of the president, the National Assembly, and the Senate. The National Assembly has a total membership of 342, of which 272 members are directly elected on general seats, 60 seats are reserved for women, and 10 for non-Muslim minorities. The National Assembly has a constitutional term of five years. The president is elected by members of the National Assembly, the Senate, and provincial assemblies. The Senate is a permanent legislative body. The term of its members is six years. However, one-half of its members retire after every three years. The Senate consists of 104 members. Members of each of the four provincial assemblies elect senators from their respective provinces. Twelve members of the national assembly representing the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) elect eight senators, while all members of the National Assembly vote to elect four senators from the federal capital territory. There is a unicameral system in the provinces (that is, there is one legislative chamber in each province), with each province housing a legislative assembly. There are two additional legislative assemblies outside the federal political structure. One is for Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and the other for Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan came into existence as the result of a democratic process. The results of the 1946 election in British India determined that the Pakistan Muslim League—the political party that had articulated and stood for the demand for a separate country for Muslims in South Asia—enjoyed popularity amongst the majority of the Muslim population in a number of areas, some of which constitute today’s Pakistan. Since the first legislature, Pakistan has elected 14 national legislatures. The National Assembly is elected partly through direct vote and partly through the list system under proportional representation. General election seats are filled by direct party-based elections on the basis of the first-pastthe-post system (that is, the legislative electoral candidate who wins the most votes receives the seat). Seats for women and religious minorities are allocated to political parties from the party lists submitted to the Election Commission in proportion to the general seats won by them. The 104 members of the Senate of Pakistan are indirectly elected—23 from each of the four provinces, eight from FATA, and four from the Islamabad Capital Territory. The 342 members of the National Assembly include 272 directly elected from across the country based on the population size of each province. Sixteen seats are reserved for women, while 10 seats are reserved for non-Muslims. In the current National Assembly of Pakistan, 17 political parties are represented. The Assembly has 70 women members (about 20 percent of the total Assembly membership), nine of which are directly elected on general seats. Thirteen political parties are represented in the current Senate. Female representation in the current Senate is 19, or 18 percent of total membership. In Pakistan’s parliamentary system, the executive is not separate from Parliament but rather drawn from and a part of Parliament. At the same time, the elected executive is also accountable to the parliament from which it originates. Unlike in a presidential system of government, where the elected president is both head of state and government, under a parliamentary system the head of government is the elected prime minister who must be an elected member of the National Assembly. The elected president, meanwhile, serves as head of state. Pakistan follows a system inherited from the British at the time of independence in 1947, and which has evolved since then. Despite being a parliamentary and not a presidential form of government, the system from the beginning has displayed a tendency toward electing strong individuals to run governments (think for example of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and most recently Nawaz Sharif). This suggests a preference of Pakistani political leaders for a presidential system. Additionally, the constitution delegates many executive powers to the prime minister. For example, the document stipulates that the premier “may act either directly or thru the Federal Ministers.” In essence, therefore, the country follows a prime ministerial rather than a parliamentary form of government. Consider as well that in Parliament, party heads and not elected representatives control not just the legislature and the legislative agenda, but individual members of Parliament (MPs) as well. While the Senate and the National Assembly carry out their activities in the plenary through introduction and debate on legislation and policy issues, the robustness of their work can be measured through the oversight role of the committees of the Senate and the National Assembly. In a presidential form of government, the legislature, separate from the executive, maintains checks on the executive through a strong oversight role built into the institution of committees. By contrast, in a parliamentary form of government, committees have a relatively limited oversight role. Regardless, each house has a separate committee dealing with each of the federal government ministries and divisions. While the oversight role could certainly stand to become more effective, committees have to their credit begun to scrutinize legislation and to make pre-budget recommendations. The Senate has reinvigorated the system of receiving public petitions provided for in the rules of both houses of Parliament. Committee hearings are generally open to the public and the media, while committees are entitled to receive petitions and complaints from the general public. 

Critical Analysis

The weakest aspect of the representative nature of Parliament is that it is extremely difficult for a person of average financial means to get elected to the Assembly. This essentially means that while Parliament theoretically represents the whole of Pakistan, persons of average means stand little chance of representing the people in the assemblies. After all, the majority of voters belong to lower income groups. Without major and effective reforms to change the nature of public funding for political parties, this unfortunate dynamic is unlikely to change. Another weak aspect of Parliamentary oversight over the executive is its inability to scrutinize key executive appointments and to hold public bodies to account. Similarly, even though control over purse strings is one of the most crucial powers of elected representatives, major reforms are needed across Pakistan’s Parliament and provincial legislatures to allow for meaningful input from members and from standing committees in the budget process. The political culture of strong individuals discussed earlier also hampers MPs’ effectiveness as public representatives. Elected MPs struggle to shape and define legislative and policy agendas in great part because such powers are largely concentrated in the hands of party leaders. This results in a lack of freedom of action for MPs, who are simply obliged to follow diktats. Legislation details are decided by leaders, with legislation then hurried through Parliament. This effectively makes the role of individual MPs and their attendance in the House almost meaningless. Indeed, perhaps the biggest disconnect in Pakistan’s parliamentary system is that the public’s expectations of the role of its elected representatives is almost completely at variance with the constitutional and institutional responsibilities of MPs. In a developing country struggling to provide basic services such as health, education, employment opportunities, and even clean water and sanitation facilities, the public’s expectation of its elected MPs is that these legislators act as a conduit for the provision of such basic services from the state. The general public expectation of an elected MP is that he or she will create employment opportunities for voters; deliver services such as electricity, sewerage, and schools to remote areas in each constituency; and be accessible and represent voters in matters relating to police, local officials, and the like. As a result, voters put little or no premium on the role of MPs in the legislatures. This means no MP faces any public pressure or expectation regarding his or her role in the legislature, how much legislation is introduced, how many questions are asked, his or her role inside committees, or even attendance in the assemblies. The essential requirement of representation, legislation, and oversight, therefore, carries no weight in the eyes of the voters and hence places no performance pressure on the MP. Not surprisingly, PILDAT estimates that, based on interviews conducted with national and provincial legislators in recent years, parliamentarians spend about 75 percent of their time servicing personal issues of constituents and 15 percent of their time working on local development. This leaves only 10 percent of their time for discharging parliamentary duties. This basic disconnect helps explain the great underperformance in Pakistan’s Parliament—an essential democratic institution. While democracy as a system is slowly maturing in terms of its continuity in Pakistan—a huge positive, given that the country’s history has featured long periods of military rule—the absence of dividends to improve governance renders Pakistan a democracy that functions merely in form, not in substance. One can also argue that even in terms of public expectations of elected representatives to provide effective and efficient basic governance, the system has done little to effectively reform service delivery. While Pakistan can boast of improvements in infrastructure development, there is precious little to report on reforms in economic management and growth, the provision of justice, rising intolerance, and basic governance issues. While Parliament sits atop Pakistan’s governance structure, the biggest disappointment in its performance has been its inability to discuss, much less lead, a comprehensive reform process on major policy issues facing the country. Apart from some key legal and constitutional reforms, Parliament has remained unsuccessful in providing workable recommendations on resolving Pakistan’s key policy challenges. What is perhaps most ironic is that despite being a key political institution—one that boasts political representation from across the country— Parliament remains completely irrelevant in resolving any political crisis. Since 2002, Parliament has largely functioned consistently and without interruption, and yet each and every political crisis facing Pakistan over that long period has been addressed and resolved not inside but outside Parliament, even though it represents all major political parties and actors. As has been observed over the years, on major issues facing the country, instead of being the main repository of policy review and advice, Parliament has largely remained out of the picture. The increasing trend of holding All Parties Conferences (APC) sharply illustrates the irrelevance of Parliament when it comes to discussing and resolving national issues. Each government has continued to rely on APCs to achieve political consensus on key policy issues. Consider, for instance, how Pakistan’s recent consensus against militancy took the form of a National Action Plan arrived at through an APC, and not inside the Parliament. Quite simply, Parliament has been unable to assert itself as a key forum. Given that parliamentary mechanisms are in place for deliberations on issues of public concern and for forging political consensus, PILDAT believes it is incumbent upon the leadership of Parliament to assert its constitutional role and to curb the growing trend of the APCs—which are promoted at the expense of, and to the detriment of, Parliament’s authority and its role as the legitimate representative of the public.

Necessary Reforms

In terms of the performance of Parliament and the provincial legislatures, apart from the Senate of Pakistan—which continues to set a high bar of performance among all of Pakistan’s legislatures—the efforts of the National Assembly and the four provincial legislatures leave a lot of room open for reforms. Weak performance is particularly due to weak architecture and a lack of optimal utilisation of the powers of oversight of the executive, a lack of transparency and accessibility of the legislatures, and an ineffective parliamentary budget process. Although the government and Parliament are not distinct entities in the Westminster system (a type of parliamentary democracy modelled after that of the United Kingdom), Westminster parliaments retain the duties of overseeing the government’s implementation of policies and of ensuring that the opposition bench has an opportunity to make its voice heard. The single-most required reform for Pakistan’s Parliament is to lead and steer the policy reform agenda. This is critical for Pakistan’s development as a peaceful and prosperous democracy. Parliaments are typically given three primary roles that are vital to the functioning of a democratic polity: drafting and passing legislation; conducting oversight of the government and its performance; and representing citizens and their interests. For Pakistan’s Parliament to uphold the tenets of democracy, it must carry out these roles effectively—and yet today, its performance in all three leaves much to be desired. According to the Performance Report of the 14th National Assembly issued by the National Assembly Secretariat, a framework known as Strategic Plan 2013-2018 was outlined to improve the workings of the National Assembly. This included: 1. The formation of the Legislative Council. 2. The development of the Employee Management Information System to improve staff management capability. 3. Introduction of Parliamentary Services Courses in both private and public universities as a public outreach initiative by the National Assembly. 4. The formation of a multi-party Strategic Plan Oversight Committee to monitor the Strategic Plan’s implementation. Both the formation of this strategic plan and the larger performance report are welcome initiatives. And yet, the National Assembly’s own reform initiative leaves some room for suggesting other much-needed reforms that the Assembly’s current leadership and membership across the political divide should consider. In order to effectively carry out the constitutional responsibilities of representation, legislation, and oversight, certain institutional reforms are needed in Parliament. The following should be considered.

Increase Actual Working Hours

The original 1973 constitution provided that the National Assembly (and provincial assemblies) should meet for a minimum of 160 days in a year. This number was later revised downward and according to Article 54 (2) of the constitution of Pakistan, the National Assembly is required to meet for a minimum of 130 days a year. However, a break of two days during an ongoing session is also counted while computing the number of days in the context of this constitutional requirement. If the two-day break is disregarded, the combined average of actual working days of the National Assembly is 103 days for the 13th National Assembly (2008-2013) and 77 working days for the 12th National Assembly (2002-2007). The 14th National Assembly of Pakistan, during its first parliamentary year, also met for a total of 103 actual working days. The average number of working hours per day for the five years of the 13th National Assembly comes out to around two hours and six minutes per day, compared to the average of a little over three hours for the 12th National Assembly. The 14th National Assembly during its first parliamentary year met for an average of three hours and eight minutes per day. Although the Assembly improved its working hours per day by 49 percent in comparison to the combined average of the 13th Assembly, further substantial improvement is needed. Recommendation: The actual working days and working hours of the assemblies should be increased. In all established democracies, legislatures remain in session all year round except for well-defined breaks. That is how Parliament ensures its supremacy. A Parliament cannot be taken seriously in absentia. Even if the working days cannot be increased at this stage, the number of working hours per day should be increased to six hours per day on the average. A suitable amendment to relevant rules of procedure and conduct of business may be introduced to set a standard for average working hours per day. Alternatively, the rules can be amended to provide for the complete disposal of the items on the order of the day before the sitting is adjourned.

PM Question Time

In keeping with global parliamentary norms and traditions, the leader of the House, be it the prime or chief minister, should answer questions at least once a week. At least 30 minutes should be allocated for this purpose in each week for each legislature, in line with the practice in most parliamentary democracies.

Recommendation: Relevant rules of procedure and conduct of business need to be amended to provide for a weekly question period (say 30 minutes) for the prime/chief minister. Their greater involvement in the proceedings of the Assembly will go a long way toward strengthening the institution and establishing its supremacy. Since question time is widely telecasted, this direct engagement would provide an additional and valuable channel of communication with the people at large.

Reforms to Strengthen the Role of Committees

The national and provincial assembly standing committees related to ministries and divisions are vital to the work of assemblies. They serve as powerful channels to promote transparency and accountability in a parliamentary system of government. Committees are one of the most important mechanisms by which legislatures hold state institutions accountable, question executive policies, and investigate issues of public concern. Committees, as a unit of organization within a legislature, provide the opportunity to a group of MPs for more detailed investigation and discussions on an issue. They have the ability to examine policy matters and review bills more closely than would be possible by the entire chamber. For a variety of reasons, chief among them a lack of institutional stability and growth due to the derailing of democracy in the past, committees in the assemblies have not been able to fully leverage their potential and optimize their performance. As a result, committees have not been very effective in performing their constitutional responsibility of overseeing the elected government and holding the executive to account on behalf of the people. The following proposals are meant to strengthen committees in the legislatures.

Composition of Standing Committees

Political expediency should not be allowed to dictate decisions about who serves on these committees. When it does, the result, in many cases, is the paralysis of committees chaired by disinterested individuals.

Recommendation: Rules should be amended to ensure that members of standing committees are selected on the basis of their interest, aptitude, and past experience, and not political expediency.

Staffing and Better Research Support for Committees

For the effective performance of standing committees, it is essential that a system of research support is provided by the Assembly to the committee. It is recommended that existing staffing structures of committees be revised. Instead of providing the chairperson with a personal assistant, personal secretary, driver, and so on, a dedicated committee secretary and at least two research assistants well versed in the subject of the committee should be provided. The key job of executive oversight cannot be carried out by committees in the absence of independent research support and staff. Researchers specializing in key areas and general researchers assisted by interns consisting of post-graduate students or fresh graduates in relevant subjects should be arranged to assist the committees in particular and national assembly members in general.

Recommendation: The staffing structure of the committee should be revised. Instead of providing the chairperson with a personal assistant, personal secretary, driver, and so on, a dedicated secretary and at least two research assistants well versed in the subject of the committee should be provided. This may be provided for in the relevant rules.

Processing Legislation Through Concerned Standing Committees

At times, some important bills are passed in a short time after suspending the rules and bypassing the requirement of scrutiny by the concerned standing committees.

Recommendation: The concerned standing committees should always examine all legislation in depth before it is considered by the full House for passage. It is also recommended that more time should be allocated for debates on legislation.

Time Limit of Presentation of Reports by Committees

According to Rule 201 (3) in the Rules of Business of the National Assembly of Pakistan, when the House makes a reference (bill or any other matter) to a particular standing committee and if the committee does not give its report within the prescribed time, then the House can consider the report upon a motion. However, if no time is prescribed for the presentation of the report, then there is no limit for the committee to present the report. In contrast, the rules of procedure in the Lok Sabha (lower house) in India’s Parliament state that when the time period has not been fixed for the committee to present a report, then it should be presented within one month of the reference made to it. This issue is of particular importance because there are a number of important bills that are stuck at the committee level—sometimes for years— but are not brought in the House.

Recommendation: An amendment in rules is needed which sets a time period for a committee to return to the House with its report.

Transparency and Accessibility of Proceedings of Committees

Unless the circumstances of a particular meeting warrant otherwise, committees’ proceedings—especially when they are not deliberating internally—should be open to the public and the media to observe and report.

Recommendation: All committee proceedings except deliberations among members should be made public so that the media and other concerned parties have access to them.

Creation of Committee for Public Petitions

Strong and active parliaments draw their strength from a close and direct link with the people. A notable aspect of this linkage, generally speaking, is the Petitions Committee of the Parliament, which invites, receives, and processes complaints sent by the people about anything under the sun. Germany and India can be cited as two countries that have such arrangements in their parliaments. Although all standing committees in Pakistan’s two houses of Parliament may act as petition committees in their respective areas of work, this aspect of the committees has remained dormant to date and needs to be strengthened. One former chief justice of Pakistan endeared himself to the people of Pakistan by inviting public complaints and then taking suo moto action (that is, action taken on his own initiative) on them. However, Parliament is a more appropriate forum to receive such petitions.

Recommendation: A petition committee should be developed that would invite, receive, and process the complaints of the people.

Reforms in the Budget Process

“Power over purse strings” and “power of the purse” are incontestable democratic fundamentals. This essentially means that there is an obligation on elected representatives of the people in an assembly to ensure that all revenue and spending measures they authorize—legally and constitutionally— are fiscally sound, match the needs and aspirations of the population with equity, and are implemented appropriately and efficiently. These fundamentals further underscore that it is “we the people” who make and implement the budget for themselves. This crucial power of elected representatives in the national and provincial assemblies of Pakistan, however, is compromised due to the lack of availability of effective powers with committees after the budget is presented. A number of reforms are required in this regard.

Effective Operationalization of Recent Amendment in Rules

A critical reform was passed in the 13th National Assembly of Pakistan to allow committees the specific power of review of budgetary proposals by each ministry before they are submitted to the Ministry of Finance in Pakistan’s specific budgetary cycle. As per the revised rules, all standing committees have to receive proposals related to their relevant ministry’s Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) for the next financial year “not later than 31st January.” The Standing Committee has to review the budgets and make recommendations “not later than 1st March” of each year.

Recommendation: Similar powers be extended to all legislatures. Standing committees should be geared to optimally use this new power while the Secretariat and support staff of committees should be directed to seek all possible expertise and resources on the subject to assist the committees.

Powers to Committees to Review Budget after Presentation of the Budget

The existing budget process makes it impossible for the Assembly as the plenary to review the budget in its entirety. As a result, the Assembly’s power to pass the budget is only exercised in name. In reality, the budget is passed without meaningful understanding and scrutiny. Budget proposals of ministries and divisions can only be understood and scrutinized by their respective committees. In other parliamentary systems, including India’s, after the presentation of the budget, demands for grants are referred to respective departmental committees which scrutinize individual ministerial demands for grants and report to the House by a fixed period, after which the grants are voted on. This is a critically important reform for Pakistan. Without it, the Assembly will simply continue to go through the motions of passing the budget every year without justly fulfilling its constitutional responsibility of understanding the budget before its passage.

Recommendation: The rules of procedure and the conduct of business in the national and provincial assemblies of Pakistan should be amended to provide a role for the standing committees to review ministerial demands for grants once the budget is presented, and to prepare reports by a specified period and table those reports in the House. Debate on the budget should resume following the submission of reports by the committees.

Increase in Time to Debate/Scrutinize Budget

Despite its critical importance in the business of the Assembly, the time allocated for budget sessions remains as insufficient as the role in review of the budget. In the past decade, assemblies have maintained a grossly insufficient 14-day average on discussion and passage of the federal and provincial budgets. This falls way short of the required time for adequate budget scrutiny and analysis by the legislature. Also, this paper’s proposal that committees be allowed a role to scrutinize departmental budgets cannot be put in place unless the budget period is increased accordingly.

Recommendation: The budget session period needs to be increased from the existing average of 14 days to about 45 days. This would require the budget to be presented to the House in early May every year so as to conclude the budget session before June 30.

Greater Public Access and Transparency

From 2008 to 2013, for the first time in the National Assembly’s history, the Assembly began its journey of greater transparency and public access by providing key information about Assembly sittings and proceedings to the media and public through its website. The National Assembly’s new website now carries the Orders of the Day (Daily Agenda of the Sittings), details of legislative business, verbatim proceedings, and the questions and answers of the Question Hour. Parliamentary leaders who facilitated this greater transparency should be commended for making an important contribution to democracy. However, for all the improvements in the National Assembly on providing greater public access to its work, it remains regressive on some of the key issues of public information. These include the complete record of attendance of each member of the National Assembly, voting records of members, detailed profiles of members, and other relevant details. In an unprecedented triumph for democracy and parliamentary openness in Pakistan, the president of Pakistan upheld PILDAT’s request for the attendance records of MNAs back in July 2015. To its credit, since this presidential verdict, the National Assembly has started uploading MP attendance on its website and the Senate has followed suit. In fact, the Senate has gone a step further by making the committees’ attendance public as well.

Recommendation: The details provided on each Assembly website need to be further improved keeping in view the parliamentary openness and transparency standards in South Asia and worldwide. Moreover, the legislative leadership of each assembly should take the lead in providing public access and transparency on all aspects of the Assembly. For that purpose, it should make all relevant data open by default. This essentially means that there should be a proactive release of Assembly data, it should be available in open and structured formats, and it should be free of charge. Proactive data sharing gives both parliaments and citizens access to low-cost tools for enhancing outreach, communication, monitoring, and advocacy. It also strengthens nongovernmental organizations, empowering them to interact with elected officials, and gives them a greater understanding of the laws and legislative actions that affect their lives. Additionally, while formats such as HTML and PDF are easily accessible for humans, they are difficult for computers to process. Providing data in structured formats, such as JSON and XML, adds significant ease to access and allows more advanced analysis, especially with large amounts of information. Unnecessary limitations arise in citizen access to crucial data by providing certain information (such as attendance records of the legislators) only upon request, or in closed formats that restrict constituents in their ability to access, search, analyze, and reuse data. Daily attendance of all members of India’s Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (the lower and upper houses, respectively, of India’s Parliament) is posted on their official websites. Models such as that of the Lok Sabha in India and House of Commons in the UK can be adopted, while providing greater access and transparency through websites. Another model for Pakistan’s National Assembly is offered by “They Work for You” (http://www., a British initiative that provides open data from Parliament to the public in an accessible format.

Televising Proceedings of Parliament

Question Hour is the most crucial part of an assembly’s proceedings through which the elected members hold the government to account. Very useful details are shared with members in response to their questions. The Question Hour is currently telecasted on Pakistan Television (PTV) only. PTV is Pakistan’s public television channel.

Recommendation: The Assemblies should extend the facility of televising the Question Hour to private television channels. Necessary amendments in rules, if required, may be made.

Amending Voting Procedures

Currently, most of the voting in each assembly is conducted through voice votes. This procedure needs to be amended because voice votes do not get incorporated into individual voting records.

Recommendation: Assembly rules should be amended so that all voting records individual votes, with voting choices made public through the Assembly website. The public has a right to know how its representatives are voting. It is further proposed that an electronic voting system be introduced whereby members can exercise their vote after biometric identification and voting results are electronically displayed. Parliamentary independence and parliamentary engagement of citizens are crucial to strengthening the independence of legislatures and their linkages with citizens, which are in turn seen as keys to enhancing legislatures’ representation of citizens, their oversight of government, and their functioning on the whole. Government responsiveness to Parliament should be monitored and reported publicly on a routine basis. Legislatures are elected to represent citizens, and no individual is above their authority. Pakistan’s assemblies should follow international good practices in bolstering measures to enhance the technical capacity, professionalism, and merit-based selection of staff. In addition, the budgets of the assemblies must gradually be enhanced to enable legislators to play their roles more effectively. Committees should have sufficient space to meet as needed, while members should have access to legislative counsel and independent research.


Pakistan’s parliament is a key democratic institution in a nation where democratization continues to make slow but steady progress. Despite some encouraging reforms, such as efforts to increase transparency, parliamentary performance still leaves much to be desired. This paper has proposed a series of governance reforms that, if implemented, could strengthen the capacities of Pakistan’s parliament in a big way.

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