This article was published in Dawn on July 03, 2021 and is available at the following link
THERE has been frequent and sometimes harsh criticism of the PTI-led federal government for its performance and quality of governance since the beginning of its tenure. There will, in all likelihood, be many more critical commentaries as the federal government completes three years next month but there has been relatively much less analysis on how the opposition has performed during this period.
Obviously, the performance of parties out of power cannot be as important or interesting to people as are the failings and achievements of the ruling party, because it is the decisions and policies adopted by the latter which affect daily life. But in a functioning parliamentary democracy, the opposition is considered the government-in-waiting and its performance, especially the ability to undertake effective oversight of the executive, also has a deep impact on the quality of democracy and governance of a country.
The conduct of the opposition shows it hasn’t done its homework on many fronts.
Granted, the opposition in Pakistan had been facing quite a challenging time since the current political set-up took over after the July 2018 general election. Partly it may be attributed to what the opposition terms as a politically motivated and one-sided accountability process in which a number of senior leaders of the opposition have been sent behind bars for extended periods of time, without any conviction by a court of law. Despite the grant of bail by various courts, almost the entire senior leadership of the two largest opposition parties — the PML-N and PPP — regularly appear before one court or the other in multiple cases while new cases continue to be registered against them.
Still, one must assess the performance of the opposition during the past three years. The most recent test of its performance came during the budget session of the National Assembly. Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif accompanied by PPP parliamentary leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari rejected the document presented by the finance minister and both vowed to block the passage of the budget. But about a fortnight later, the Finance Bill was passed without any major obstacle. The leader of the opposition was not in the house during voting because of the death of a close relative and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who is next to Shehbaz Sharif in seniority within the PML-N was also away because of a court case. All in all, 25 MNAs or 15 per cent of the total strength of the opposition in the Assembly was absent at the time of the crucial vote compared to only 4pc to 7pc absentees from the treasury.
It is true that the opposition did not have the requisite numbers in the Assembly to block the passage of the Finance Bill and it is quite normal for a sitting government to have the budget passed from the legislature but the question arises as to why the leader of the opposition and the parliamentary leader of the PPP needed to throw an open challenge to the government, saying that the opposition would not only give it a ‘tough time’ during the budget debate but also block the bill’s passage. Secondly, the absence of 25 opposition MNAs indicated the lack of both fighting spirit and seriousness.
While the government has steamrollered 50 amendments to the Elections Act, 2017, in the National Assembly Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs and the National Assembly plenary, thus compromising the spirit of democracy, the opposition has not been able to document and articulate its position on each of the proposed electoral reforms. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), on the other hand, had done its homework. It pointed out apparent conflict of some of the proposed amendments with the Constitution and raised serious issues about some others.
Both major opposition political parties have rejected the proposed use of electronic voting machines and voting for overseas Pakistanis from their countries of residence, but the leader of the opposition sprang a surprise by proposing reserved National Assembly and Senate seats for this category of Pakistanis, without providing details for evaluation of this novel idea proposed for the first time by a mainstream political party. Apparently, no serious homework had been done by his own party, and it seems that other opposition parties had also not been taken into confidence. This new proposal is in conflict with his party’s earlier stand that overseas Pakistanis are far removed from the ground realities in the country and therefore unfit to exercise their right to vote as informed voters unless they come to the country.
The PML-N proposal that the ECP should host meetings to develop multiparty consensus on the proposed electoral reforms is also in conflict with the traditional party stand on parliament’s superior status. In the past, the PML-N successfully developed multiparty consensus and involved the ECP in consultations but all that was done at the forum of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms which eventually led to the passage of the Elections Act, 2017. Even now, consensus on the proposed amendments to Elections Act, 2017, should be developed from within parliament and the ECP should not be involved in something which is parliament’s forte. The opposition leader has also mooted an all-parties conference on electoral reforms but the proposal, it seems, has been deferred.
The conduct of the opposition in the past three years, in general, has shown that serious homework is missing in most of its decisions. The past PDM (except for the PPP) proposal of boycotting the Senate election under the misconceived expectation that it would render the electoral college incomplete and defer the Senate election is a case in point. The idea of en masse resignations from the legislatures was equally ill-conceived.
The remaining two years of the PTI-led government are extremely important for the government and the opposition. Mere slogans will not suffice; serious homework on crucial issues and effective public articulation of well-considered ideas are critical for both.