Geo-strategic challenges, national security, political instability and post-election tensions between the government and opposition parties largely defined the agenda for the Pakistan Parliament during the last three years. The response by the Parliament in most cases was swift, methodical and categorical, although its actions were not matched by the executive in terms of their enforcement, deepening a public perception of parliamentary ineffectiveness. While Pakistan’s security and political parties’ institutional interests drew unanimity and urgency of parliamentary actions, issues of public interest such as energy crisis, weak governance, human rights, institutional corruption, unemployment and increasing poverty remained low on the Parliament’s priorities.
The 14th National Assembly brought yet another transition to Pakistan’s democracy. However, assessing from the recent national emergencies, it is quite apparent that the PML-N led government has tended to lack policy direction while key political parties have often allowed petty politicking to distract them from meaningful engagement on urgent citizens’ needs and issues. This has led to intensification in the general indifference of citizens to their own rights and responsibilities, and to the state and its institutions. The gap between the people and their representatives seems to be widening due to a trust deficit as the system doesn’t appear to cater to, or even comprehend, the needs of the common citizen.
Pakistan Parliament is certainly not weak in principle; however, it refuses to wield the authority that has been constitutionally assigned to it. Similarly, with the exception of a few, the parliamentarians’ loyalties to political parties or leaders far outweigh the people’s concerns, as well as legislature as an institution. Political parties, who perform vital functions in any representative democracy, also appear to have failed to provide the principal vehicle for the aggregation of citizens’ interests. Since these prime agencies are also too busy catering to their own vested interests, the gap between the rulers and the ruled has widened a little more. The Parliament has been successful in making laws; however, these pieces of legislation do not cater to the aspirations of the citizens, they do not represent their voice or concerns.
Political organizations such as the All Parties Conference (APC) seem to be more empowered than our Parliament; amply reflected in events such as the presentation of the National Security Policy to APC and a subsequent resolution by the agency leading to Zarb-e-Azb, which was only later brought to the floor of the Parliament for endorsement. Clearly, the decision was made elsewhere while the Parliament merely sanctioned it; a classic text-book example of a “rubber stamp” legislature. Similarly, the government took cover behind the Parliament (Joint Sitting) to avoid the menacing posturing growing out of PTI and PAT’s dharnas in Islamabad. Instead of meaningfully responding to the general distrust of election results in 2013 and addressing serious complaints about the government’s lack of performance (in the form of concrete legislation and reforms), the Parliament chose to become a “debating club” for 11 days. All of these joint sittings were broadcast on national television, in contrast to other regular proceedings that we the people never get to witness.
The lack of information doesn’t stop here; major pieces of legislation, which have a direct or indirect relation and influence on our lives, are made public after either their introduction or passage. Members’ performance or attendance of Assembly sittings are never allowed public scrutiny. These are vital indicators that are crucial for citizens to make informed electoral choices. Standing Committees, those mini legislatures where the Parliament’s actual business should be conducted, tend to work in complete isolation. In every democratic political system, committees have some responsibility for government oversight, and for analyzing and amending or at least commenting on legislation and budgets. However, even these committees lack access to the information required for them to adequately analyze government proposals. The working of the Parliament is no doubt a difficult and tedious subject and citizens are often unskilled in articulating their needs to the legislature. But, there is no formal process for citizens to interact with legislatures or even visit the Parliament.
Ever since the oath-taking of the 14th National Assembly in June 1, 2013, which recently completed its second parliamentary year, the Lower Chamber has passed 90 bills – most of which are either an endorsement or a “go-ahead” to the requirements of the military-civil bureaucracy establishment. Similarly, the 13th National Assembly, during the PPPP-led coalition government, passed 135 bills including legislation for women rights; a mammoth achievement for any legislature in the world! However, a large number of these bills simply served the needs of the executive of the time. It took two and half years for the 13th National Assembly to pass an amendment to declare acid-throwing a crime, whereas, during the PPPP and judiciary tussle, contempt of court legislation was passed during the span of a single sitting. Gauging from the performance of the Lower House, it is evident that the Assembly has not come up to the expectations and aspirations of the electors, subsequently, leading to a practical disconnect between the elected and citizens.
An effective parliament is the citizens’ branch of state, comprising of elected legislators whose expressed mandate is to safeguard the rights of their constituents and ensure that their opinions and sentiments are being reflected in national policy making. Parliaments around the globe tend to play a vital role in the promotion of democracy and good governance by lawmaking, representation and oversight functions for the development and implementation of laws and policies. There is a desperate need for reforms to empower the Pakistani Parliament so that it caters to the citizens’ demands and aspirations in the form of people-centric legislation, improved quality of representation and oversight of the executive. The empowerment of the citizen’s branch will enable the public to actively participate in the decision-making process which affects not only their lives but also the lives of our future generations.