This article was published in Dawn on February 17, 2019 and is available at the following link
THE PTI-led federal government is set to complete its first six months today but the National Assembly which elected this government already passed the six-month milestone on Feb 12. It is heartening to see a growing appetite among the people and media to review the performance of the government and parliament when such milestones are reached. Earlier, the PTI had set the tone of such reviews by publicly discussing its performance of the first 100 days and by giving some details of the performance review during the first six months as well.
Sadly, the enthusiasm with which the performance of the government and its various ministers was reviewed seemed to be missing in the case of parliament. It may be a good idea for each legislature to undertake periodic reviews of its performance and debate the performance report in the house. This will certainly enhance public knowledge and interest in the workings of parliament.
The performance statistics of the current (15th) National Assembly have not been much different from the previous Assembly data. The Assembly has convened seven sessions during the first six months compared to six sessions of the past Assembly. This Assembly met for 59 days compared to 65 days of the previous Assembly, a minor difference. Five government bills were introduced out of which four were passed by the current National Assembly compared to only three government bills introduced and only one passed by the previous one during its first six months. Even the prime minister’s average attendance (19 per cent) is the same as his predecessor Shahid Abbasi’s but indicates a downward trend since his 29pc attendance was computed at the end of the first 100 days.
Parliament’s first six months will be remembered more for the bitter, ongoing feud between the PTI and the opposition.
Parliament’s first six months will, however, not be remembered so much for these statistics, as it will for the bitter, ongoing feud between the PTI and the opposition. This bitterness has mostly crossed the limits defined by parliamentary rules and etiquette. Although excesses have been committed by both sides of the aisle, PTI ministers and MNAs, instead of taking the high road and defusing tensions, at times provoked confrontation within parliament although the disruption of proceedings usually harms the ruling party more than it does the opposition. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry even picked a quarrel with the Senate chairman who banned his entry in the Senate for the remaining session — a rare, extremely strict action given that Mr Chaudhry is the official spokesman of the federal government. Mr Chaudhry boycotted the subsequent Senate sessions and demanded an apology from the Senate chairman — another extraordinary development in the parliamentary history of Pakistan.
The first six months of parliament during the PTI rule will also be remembered for the perfectly avoidable stand-off between the treasury and the opposition on the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. The National Assembly remained almost paralysed and the formation of the standing committees was delayed when the PTI chairman refused to let Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif be elected chairman of the prestigious PAC in line with the tradition set during the past two assemblies when leaders of the opposition were elected as chairman PAC with the consent of the government of the day.
The combined opposition, mainly comprising the PML-N and PPP, protested, staged walkouts and publicly announced they would not let Assembly proceedings progress unless the PAC chair was given to the leader of the opposition. Eventually, the PTI relented and the leader of the opposition was unanimously elected chairman PAC.
The National Assembly also saw extraordinary delay in the formation of the standing committees during the first six months. According to the Assembly rules, the standing committees should be elected within 30 days of the election of the prime minister and their chairpersons should be elected within another one month. This means that the committees should have been formed by Sept 17, 2018, and their chairs elected by Oct 17. Mainly due to the controversy over the election of the PAC chair, the standing committees were formed on Feb 5, 2019, after a delay of around five months. The previous Assembly had managed to form committees within three months of the prime minister’s election, though it took another two months to make them functional.
Media reports indicate that during the initial six months, the National Assembly also attended to the preparation of its new five-year strategic plan, a very welcome step indeed. The past two such plans, unfortunately, did not see effective implementation or regular reports of the progress made. The new plan, in which the speaker is known to be taking a personal interest, should not only devise a system of measuring and disseminating periodic progress reports on implementation but should also underscore the hugely needed reforms such as improving the parliamentary budget process.
The most critical issue regarding the ruling party’s parliamentary performance during the first six months seems to be a lingering discord between the hawks and the doves within the PTI leadership. While the former seem to prefer an aggressive approach, the latter including experienced parliamentarians like Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, led by National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, would want to accommodate the opposition’s point of view to the extent possible to ensure smooth proceedings in the house.
Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid’s quest for the membership of the PAC to ‘give a tough time to Shahbaz Sharif’ with the blessing of the top PTI leadership and his ‘efforts’ to remove Shahbaz Sharif as chairman PAC on the one hand, and the speaker’s reluctance and other PTI parliamentarians’ opposition to these moves on the other, are a manifestation of the two opposing trends. Which of the two trends eventually prevails will decide how parliament will function in the days to come.