Making the parliament function as an institution that does not have to be heavily reliant on executive order will not only serve Pakistan on its road to democracy but will more importantly restore the rightful balance of power between the military and the civilian leadership
In the past, military rulers in Pakistan, seeking legitimacy as the guardians of democracy, have condemned political parties as ill organised, ineffective and incapable of maintaining political stability. The political parties, on their part, have not done much to ameliorate the public’s opinion of them. Political parties do not mobilise masses on the basis of ideology or policy programmes. And when in government their poor performance has led the public to be critical of their inefficiency and therefore unopposed to army intervention.
The 2008 election may have brought the same political players back onto the playing field, but it is important to note that the context and circumstances of the game have changed considerably, leading to a window of opportunity to correct the civil-military imbalance that has historically prevailed in Pakistan.
The surge in the number of news channels on cable television has led to a continuous dialogue with members of civil society and a critique of actions carried out by both the state and political elite. In this capacity, the media has started playing a positive role, by being watchful of political leaders and holding them accountable.
Another effect of this is that in a society that is predominantly illiterate, the electronic media has made people aware of their political right to demand good governance and the ability to vote out politicians that perform badly. The poor performance of the previous government under Musharraf and the mistakes made during 2007 have not only made the public more opposed to the military’s role in politics, but has also, albeit unrealistically, raised expectations of the newly elected democratic government.
The election led to a high turnover in elected members in all assemblies. Approximately 57 to 73 percent of the members in the national and provincial assemblies are new. Granted that many of the newly elected legislators belong to traditional political families, but they do nonetheless inject new blood into the parliament. The public has huge expectations, partially because it is used to authoritarianism and the quick benefits derived from patronage systems, and partially because it is fed-up and is desperately seeking relief from price hikes and energy shortages.
At the same time, the army, after having directed its efforts towards governing the country for the last 8 years, finds itself unprepared in terms of organisation, equipment or even ideology to protect Pakistan’s frontier from extremist elements. The army has low morale and is disturbed by the extent of its popularity in the Punjab, which has always been the heartland for army support. Approval for Musharraf at the declaration of Emergency was as low as 19 percent. This was not just an anti-incumbency phenomenon or even temporary disgust for the army. My hunch is that it is actually a reflection of how badly popular support for a military solution to Pakistan’s problems has dwindled.
In these circumstances, if politicians want to make the coalition government last, if they want to serve a full 5-year term and then be re-elected, their best recourse to action is to actually make the parliament work effectively as the sovereign legislative body that it is supposed to be constitutionally. To ensure that the parliament returns to its rightful place in the political system, the elected government should be allowed to complete its tenure, the parliament should decide on legislation and political parties should project policy profiles that encourage representation of interests over issues instead of patronage.
First, the incoming government needs to therefore work hard towards establishing consensus on the system of checks and balances between the head of state and the head of government. To that extent the debate over Article 58(2)b needs to be resolved once and for all. It is unrealistic to expect that the military will not try to pull strings from the background and maintain an indirect influence over domestic and foreign policy. Whether Musharraf remains president or not, on a normative level both major parties have to pledge not to undercut the other by turning to the army or to the Eighth Amendment to remove an elected government. Beyond 58(2)b, there are few significant structural or legal barriers to establishing an assertive, well-functioning parliament.
Second, the committee system needs to be revived and rejuvenated. There are meant to be committees in both the National Assembly and Senate corresponding to the federal ministries. Many of these committees have never been formed, or even if they were formed, they were not convened on a regular basis. Senate committees on defence and finance have been a bit more functional but not effective.
On a very fundamental level, parliamentarians do not know their responsibilities and obligations as members of committees and are unaware of how to formulate requests for information. The formation of committees has been unfair — opposition members are excluded from joining committees, backbenchers are often not given an opportunity to participate hence lowering the level of debate.
On the other extreme, many parliamentarians are spread thin because they are assigned to multiple committees. More importantly, these committees are not staffed properly. Additional secretaries to the parliament serve as de facto staff, often on more than one committee. Federal secretaries from the ministries prepare the agenda and notes for the committee proceedings. As a result, there is no actual monitoring or oversight of governmental activities, budget-making and legislative drafting. Also no tradition of actually carrying out policy research and maintaining a policy profile has been fostered amongst the parliamentarians.
Third, the nature of interaction between an MNA and the constituent leaves a lot to be desired. Here, constituent outreach is not the problem. MNAs spend almost every weekend in their constituency and interact with individual constituents. However MNAs get bogged down with affairs of local governance instead of actually carrying out their legislative role. On the one hand, parliamentarians do not see their main role as making policy and overseeing local government operations. On the other hand, constituents seem to be unaware that the MNA is elected to translate their interest upwards to the state instead of delivering concrete goods like paved roads, schools, hospitals and sewage systems to the constituents.
Small steps need to be undertaken to improve this sorry state of affairs. Top priority should be given to the training of legislators. They should be made aware of their responsibilities and obligations to the parliament and constituents. They should also be encouraged to develop policy profiles by engaging in actual research, and improve their budget-reviewing skills so that they can carry out effective oversight. This is especially important when it comes to reviewing the defence budget and military action in parliament.
Making the parliament function as an institution that does not have to be heavily reliant on executive order will not only serve Pakistan on its road to democracy but will more importantly restore the rightful balance of power between the military and the civilian leadership.
Mariam Mufti is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the party system of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University
Source: Daily Times, 5/5/2008