South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Hina Shaikh

The confrontation between judiciary and the executive on the appointment and restoration of judges and implementation of the Supreme Court’s judgment on the NRO are examples of where the Parliament failed to take timely action

Pakistan has now become a parliamentary democracy and we say this quite literally because the requisite change has been brought about in its constitution. However nine uninterrupted years later, the Pakistani Parliament is still struggling to establish a greater say in the approval of official policies, in signing and ratifying international agreements and in maintaining legislative oversight of the decisions taken. It requires a deepening of the democratic traditions in not only the way proceedings are conducted but also the manner in which topics of debate are selected, parliamentary committees are set up and legislative decisions upheld. Take the case of parliamentary standing committees that have a crucial role to play in pushing legislation forward. Unfortunately vigilance and oversight on behalf of the Parliament has been compromised on account of the nomination of standing committees’ heads on the basis of party affiliation alone or as a means to reward allies, rather than on the basis of ability or relevant experience. Such practices profoundly reflect the manner in which democracy truly functions in Pakistan.

The only positive development thus far has remained the relatively large representation of women in the National Assembly, the senate and provincial assemblies in comparison to other countries of the world. Of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, women now comprise 22.2 % of those seats. In the Senate, women make up 17% of the parliamentary seats. This indeed is significant departure from the past considering that women are often discouraged from entering politics.

Women members have also been more active and effective voices of citizens than their male counterparts in the Parliament. In 2009, a total of 54 private members’ bills were on the orders of the day for all sittings during this parliamentary year. Of these bills, 49 were laid before the House of which female representatives tabled 43, either independently or jointly with other female or male members of the Parliament. The male members, in comparison, introduced only six private member bills. Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2009, The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act 2008, Transplantation of Human Organ and Tissues Act 2009, The Guardians and Wards (Amendment) Act 2008, and The Family Courts (Amendment) Act 2008 are some of the legislations which were initiated by female parliamentarians.

However, the Parliament shied away from addressing other pressing issues such as resolving national conflicts and crises. The confrontation between judiciary and the executive on the appointment and restoration of judges and implementation of the Supreme Court’s judgment on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) are examples of where the Parliament failed to take timely action. However it did do something impressive. It unanimously approved the 18th Amendment restoring the 1973 constitution to its original form by enacting no less than 105 changes to the constitution, transforming it into a truly parliamentary system of government. The amendment limits presidential powers, seeks a greater role for the Parliament and the prime minister and realigns the distribution of power between the centre and the provinces. While these changes represent an opportunity for Pakistan’s political parties to seriously start addressing the country’s critical economic and security problems, the full impact of the many changes will only be determined over time as the country’s major political players test their reinforced and enhanced authorities within an uncertain political arena in the shadow of a strong military establishment.

The Parliament also continues to lack the strength to take actions where they are mandated. The rift between the judiciary and the legislature, following the Lawyers’ Movement, has greatly hampered the sovereignty of the Parliament. The Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruled against sections 11 and 28 of the Women’s Protection Act 2006 (reported in media on December 23, 2010). The objective of the Women’s Protection Bill was to improve on a defective law. It was passed by both houses of Parliament with the sanction of the will of the people. The FSC’s judgment leaves no room but to perceive the decision as undermining the sovereignty of the Parliament which should have the prerogative to repeal or make obsolete bad laws. Will the Parliament demonstrate the courage, as it should, to assert itself and maintain that the law it passed after much deliberation and a long struggle, was the correct thing to do?

The parliamentary proceedings continue to remain inefficient. During 2009, a total of 68 presidential ordinances were laid before the Assembly, of which 38 were promulgated during the 12th National Assembly of Pakistan and were accorded permanence in the regime of General Pervaiz Musharaf. Since the Supreme Court of Pakistan had rejected the permanence of those ordinances, the current government decided to bring most of them in the Parliament for approval, taking time away from discussing more pressing concerns. Punctuality in the sitting time of the Parliament remains another concern. On average each session began 50 minutes late in 2009. Absence of ministers despite the regular presence of the prime minister in the sessions underscored how lightly these ministers take both the Parliament and their chief executive. Motions, call-attention notices and points of went unheard, while debates on vital issues bore no fruit. The chair’s directives were rarely implemented, while the government decided to carry on even with quorum.

In order to strengthen the supremacy of Parliament and to make it more effective in promoting accountable and transparent governance as well as strengthening democracy in Pakistan, there should be a code of conduct which every member of the House should follow to the letter and spirit. Senior parliamentarians particularly those who are senior leaders of their respective political parties along with the leaders of the house and opposition should ensure their presence in the House. The most important change required is to make the proceedings of the house public via video conferencing. This is an obligation under the access of the information clause of the constitution. Such control of proceedings of the house sends an anti-democratic message.Most importantly contact between the Parliament and people needs to be improved which can be achieved through timely dissemination of the Parliament’s proceedings.

Getting a sitting president, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, to willingly surrender his powers to the prime minister and Parliament is a giant leap towards a truly parliamentary form of government. The National Assembly has managed to maintain its pace in legislating laws as it passed 31 bills during the third parliamentary year ending on March 15 compared to 32 the previous year. The prime minister also maintained his tradition of attending maximum number of sittings and responding to various queries of the members.

However, overall, upon the conclusion of the third parliamentary year, many believe there has been negligible change in the overall performance of the 13th National Assembly of Pakistan and therefore the need for systemic reforms and improvement is as pressing as was a year ago. The lower house, which has so far held 29 sessions since March 2008, passed a total of 67 bills in three years but the fact that over 50% of them have not yet become acts is indeed a black spot on the face of the overall legislative performance of the government in the Parliament. At least 73% of the MNAs questions remained unanswered during the year. Average attendance of MNAs improved by a mere 4% from the previous year: 66% in 2010-2011 compared to 62% in 2009-2010, although still 8% below the average attendance during second year. Parliamentarians met for mere three hours per day at an average during 98 days in the third year; a consistent average through the 12th and the 13th Assemblies while only 161 members participated in budget debate compared to 170 last year. Pakistan need to think about a parliamentary model which is truly equal in representation, equal in power and effective and efficient in its working.

Hina Shaikh is currently working as a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Research Center at LUMS