This article was published in Dawn on May 9, 2022 and is available at the following link
ALTHOUGH the question in the title is premature, some analysts seem to be worried about how the National Assembly will work without a large segment of the opposition whose members recently tendered their resignations.
The treasury and opposition benches swapped their respective positions after the vote of no-confidence against prime minister Imran Khan was passed in the early hours of April 10. Formally, PTI members would have moved to the opposition benches after Shehbaz Sharif was elected the new prime minister of Pakistan on April 11 but the PTI parliamentary leader, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, announced the en masse resignation of PTI MNAs and walked out of the Assembly chamber even before voting in the prime minister’s election could commence.
It later transpired that 125 out of a total of 155 PTI MNAs handed their resignations to the party whip who, in turn, submitted these to the Speaker’s office which, at that time, was occupied by the deputy Speaker in his capacity as the acting Speaker, following the resignation of the Speaker. The acting Speaker accepted the resignations of 123 MNAs on April 13 and the secretary of the Assembly issued a notification to this effect the same day.
The resignations, however, remain controversial as the new Speaker, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who took charge on April 16, questioned their validity.
According to the National Assembly rules, the resignation of a member must fulfil two basic conditions: it must be genuine and tendered voluntarily. The Speaker must satisfy that these two conditions are met before he accepts a resignation.
The new Speaker has expressed his intention to personally verify that these resignations are validly tendered. Since there is no time frame mentioned in the Constitution or the Assembly rules for the verification of the resignations, the last time that a similar situation arose in 2014 and PTI MNAs tendered their resignations, the then Speaker, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, sat on them for about seven months, and ultimately, the MNAs returned to the Assembly.
Even if the resignations of all the MNAs are finally accepted, there will be around 45 members on the opposition benches, including some 32 PTI rebels and members of the GDA, Jamaat-i-Islami, PML-Q and BAP.
There have been many past legislatures in Pakistan, including the National Assembly elected in 1997, when opposition members were even less in number. This opposition will be able to undertake the rituals usually assigned to it in a parliamentary system. In case some PTI members change their mind during the process of ‘verification’ by the Speaker, the opposition ranks may swell further.
It is also not impossible that the PTI as a party realises that it doesn’t make sense to altogether abandon its role in some important future appointments, such as in the next caretaker government and the Election Commission or in NAB in the position of chairman, and it decides to reconsider its resignations as it did in 2014. In such a situation, the PTI may be able to play an active role as a parliamentary opposition as should be the case in a parliamentary democracy.
Our opposition parties’ lack of seriousness in the assemblies has persisted for long.
The appointment of the leader of the opposition, who is considered equivalent to a federal minister and enjoys significant perks and privileges, will be another key milestone in the current parliament. While the GDA is seeking the position, claiming to be a ‘genuine’ opposition party, the rules of procedure in the National Assembly require the claimant to demonstrate the support of the highest number of opposition members. Irrespective of the political ramifications, PTI rebels have a strong case to get one of them appointed as leader of the opposition, in accordance with Assembly rules.
It would have made sense to worry about the role of the opposition in the National Assembly after the resignation of the PTI MNAs had the opposition in any of the national or provincial legislatures played its due role and taken its responsibilities seriously in relatively normal circumstances. The opposition is meant to scrutinise each government bill, debate it extensively in committees and the plenary, point out its weaknesses both inside parliament and outside, hold the government to account based on a serious analysis of its policies such as the annual budget, and generally act as a government in waiting.
Opposition parties constitute shadow cabinets in developed parliamentary democracies to both prepare for governance and demonstrate their preparedness. Sadly, the opposition role in Pakistan is largely limited to agitation, sloganeering, walkouts, tearing up Assembly documents and shouting at ministers and the prime minister.
This is not only true for the current or recent opposition parties in various legislatures; the lack of seriousness and fact-based criticism is a general problem that has been persisting for quite some time in our legislatures. With this kind of role played by the opposition, it is unlikely that anyone would miss its existence.
In fact, we face a much broader question. It is not just the opposition, the entire working of the assemblies raises serious questions. In reality, our national and provincial assemblies are primarily used as electorates for the prime minister and chief ministers respectively. At times, it appears to be their only institutional role.
In addition, the assemblies provide leverage to their members to lobby for jobs, promotions, better postings, transfers and preferential treatment by local, provincial and federal administrations for their voters, supporters and prospective supporters. Real responsibilities like legislation, oversight of the executive, review of the budget and other state policies, and representing their constituents in policy debates, hardly attract our legislators’ attention.
Thin attendance, frequent lack of quorum, little to no debate on legislation and mostly irrelevant speeches on the most important policy document — the annual budget — are just a few examples of the lack of seriousness in our legislatures. In these circumstances, the presence or absence of the opposition in the assemblies makes very little difference to the people.