Preparing to govern in Pakistan: the case for shadow cabinets | Arab News

This article was published in Arab News on January 03, 2021 and is available at the following link

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently invited a great deal of criticism by admitting that he and his party, PTI, were not ready to govern the country when they won the election in July 2018, because his team was inexperienced and unaware of the real issues of governance. 
He also felt that the absence of a system of briefing the incoming government by the outgoing government or senior bureaucracy, as is done in the US, was responsible for the lack of preparedness. His advice, based on his own experience, was that no party should come into government without being adequately prepared for the job.
But besides a US-style briefing, he did not offer any ideas on how political parties could better prepare themselves to govern the country.
One must admit the Prime Minister was spot on when referring to the lack of a formal system of preparation by political parties for the most important job of governing a country, a province or even local government. 
Our political parties, including Imran Khan’s own political party – PTI, work very hard and spend colossal sums of money to contest elections but never organize their parties to conduct orientation and leadership training at any levels – national, provincial or local.
Even after the election, parties do not invest any time or resources for training elected legislators like Senators or Members of National and Provincial Assemblies, with the result that a majority of them never get to meaningfully participate in any debate or contribute to the Committee work.

An important, and probably the most effective, way of preparing for a smooth and seamless transition from opposition to ruling party, is the practice of forming shadow cabinets and keeping them almost as active and vigilant as the real cabinet.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Most parties have their policy wings or think tanks, but they are not organized enough to provide training to party cadres on governance. These wings are hardly ever allocated sufficient funds to undertake research and study of each aspect of governance and prepare policy options on behalf of the party. Generally, these wings are activated very close to the general election and tasked to prepare an election manifesto.
There is general disregard for preparing for governance. Most political parties are under the mistaken notion that bureaucracy will be able to run the government for them and that they do not need to bother about the preparation. Sadly, parties learn the hard way as has the current PM, that this is not true. Parties do need to invest in learning the intricacies of governance.
An important, and probably the most effective, way of preparing for a smooth and seamless transition from opposition to ruling party, is the practice of forming shadow cabinets and keeping them almost as active and vigilant as the real cabinet. 
This practice is more relevant in parliamentary systems of government and the most notable example is that of Britain, whose parliamentary democracy was inherited by us. There are some 21 members of the British Cabinet drawn from the ruling Conservative party and almost the same number of shadow cabinet members of the opposition Labour Party. 
Each position in the shadow cabinet mirrors the real cabinet position. The tradition of Shadow Cabinet is not limited to Britain alone; there are at least 20 other countries, including major democracies like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Italy, Japan and Ireland, who practice the Shadow Cabinet system.
Shadow Cabinet ministers have the responsibility to keep themselves fully informed of government policies relating to the minister’s portfolio, scrutinize government policies and develop and articulate alternative policies. Each shadow minister is assisted by some junior parliamentary colleagues and a number of staffers including researchers. 
This process of active policy engagement becomes an effective vehicle of imparting hands-on experience to opposition parties and their leadership.
While the performance of a Shadow Cabinet as a whole plays an important role in convincing the public about the credentials of the Opposition Party as a potential government, the performance of individual shadow ministers gives a very good idea to the party leader about his or her competence– which helps the shadow prime minister to pick a tested team if and when the opposition party wins an election and forms a government.
In Pakistan, where the tradition of shadow cabinets is non-existent, there may be unhealthy competition among senior party leaders over the distribution of shadow portfolios and party unity could be affected. 
This challenge will, however, need to be overcome. Once initiated, it is only a matter of time before parties and officials get used to a system of shadow cabinets– leading the way to the professionalization of political parties and the power transfer process.

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