Dubious distinctions for Pakistan’s outgoing national assembly
Democratic order in Pakistan just crossed another milestone on August 10, when the country’s 15th National Assembly was dissolved by the President of the country on the binding advice of the Prime Minister just two days before the assembly would have completed its five-year term and been dissolved anyway. So, why did the PM bother advising the dissolution of the assembly barely two days before it was to dissolve itself? The answer: The constitution allows 60 days for election if the assembly completes its full term but gives 90 days in case the assembly is prematurely dissolved even a day before its scheduled expiry date. This way, the government gains more time for the election of the new assembly.
As the country’s National Assembly stands dissolved and the countdown starts for the induction of a caretaker government for the election period, the performance of the outgoing assembly is under discussion. There is something to be said for the fact that this assembly, unlike 11 of its predecessors, was able to complete its 5-year term despite a close call in April last year.
The Assembly also earned the rather odd distinction of being the first legislature which ousted its leader of the house. There were two other Prime Ministers who faced no-trust motions, but both motions had failed. Despite the bitterness which the removal of Imran Khan as Prime Minister generated, the fragile democratic set-up withstood the seismic shocks of change of government.
More ordinances mean a weakened democracy, and the number of ordinances increased to 75 compared to 38 previously. Almost all of these were passed when Imran Khan was Prime Minister.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Despite surviving the change of government, the Assembly was substantially weakened when Imran Khan decided that all legislators from his party would resign en bloc. He thought that the exit of around half of the assembly would render the assembly dysfunctional and the government would be forced to hold fresh elections. Sadly, for Imran Khan, it did not happen and the assembly, despite numerous challenges, went on to complete its term – or nearly complete its term.
The 15th National Assembly not only completed its term, it was able to pass a record number of bills – 279 compared to 192 in the previous assembly. Although there was justified criticism regarding the manner in which short-cuts were applied and legislation was rushed through the parliament without any semblance of debate or scrutiny by parliamentary committees, the assembly passed some of the most significant and controversial bills in Pakistan’s history, like the amendment to the Army Act which widened the circle to which restrictions of the Army Act applied. Substantive amendments to the Cantonments Act and Official Secrets Act were also passed, though not without severe criticism. In the face of stiff opposition, the government decided to abandon the idea of passing another very controversial bill, the Prevention of Violent Extremism Bill.
Ordinance is legislation by decree and more ordinances mean weakened democracy. During the 15th National Assembly, the number of ordinances promulgated tremendously increased to 75 compared to 38 in the previous assembly. Most of these ordinances, 72, were passed when Imran Khan was the Prime Minister.
The working hours of the assembly decreased to 1,245 compared to 1,575 in the previous assembly, indicating a drop of around 21%.
The general disinterest of Prime Ministers in the proceedings of the Assembly continued but Imran Khan established new records of absenteeism with only 11% attendance which is less than the record previously held by Nawaz Sharif at 14%.
The budget debate, supposedly the most important part of the assembly business, also remained lacklustre as only 15 days were devoted for the purpose.
In these difficult economic times, when inflation and utility bills are breaking the common person’s back, the assembly budget during these five years registered a 96% increase over the previous assembly’s five years.
In general, the assembly could not lift the sagging public confidence in democracy, the performance of politicians in general, and the parliament in particular.
- The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat; Youtube: @abmpildat