Parliament in three years of PTI rule
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Both the fifteenth National Assembly of Pakistan and the PTI-led federal government completed their three years just five days apart; the assembly on August 12 and the government on August 17, 2021.
There have been numerous media commentaries, a 255-page detailed report published by the Ministry of Information and an elaborate ceremony addressed by the Prime Minister to mark the completion of three years of the government. But no such arrangements were made to inform the people about the performance of the National Assembly which is all the more important because this is the house that gives birth to the federal government and where losing a majority means the end of the government
The National Assembly’s other twin, the Senate, follows a different parliamentary calendar, holds elections for half of its members every three years and starts its parliamentary year on March 12. The Senate, unlike the National Assembly, had been regularly publishing its annual report with the last such report published on March 11 this year after it completed its parliamentary year.
During the third year of the government, senators’ mode of election dominated the public discourse as the government tried to push for elections through open ballot instead of the secret ballot which is provided for in the constitution. The government also tried to solicit the Supreme Court’s opinion on the subject which ultimately declared that the constitution required the senate election to be held through secret ballot. The senate election, as expected, led to the emergence of PTI as the largest parliamentary party but PTI and its allies failed to win a majority. The Senate election also produced the upset win of the opposition candidate Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani from the federal capital through a vote in the National Assembly where PTI and its allies held a majority. The victory of the opposition candidate forced Prime Minister Imran Khan to seek a fresh vote of confidence from the National Assembly.
The Senate could pass only 24 bills during the year 2020-21, which is less than half the 60 bills passed by the National Assembly during its third year- a reflection of the lack of support for the ruling coalition in the Senate and also indicated the inability on the part of the government to establish a working relationship with the opposition and take them along on legislation. The government had, therefore, been relying on ordinances for legislation. During the past three years, 58 ordinances were laid by the government in the National Assembly which represents a whopping 100 percent increase over 29 ordinances laid out by the previous assembly in the first three years.
The tendency of rushing through or bulldozing the legislation in the national assembly accelerated during the third year as pressure mounted on Pakistan to meet the conditionalities of IMF and FATF. The reduced time devoted to legislation is illustrated by the fact that the National Assembly worked 36 percent less hours during the third year but passed 100 percent more bills compared to the second year.
Another striking feature of the law-making was that almost a fourth of the bills passed by the assembly were necessitated by the conditionalities of international agencies such as IMF and FATF. Some more laws are in the pipeline to satisfy such conditionalities during the next parliamentary year.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had promised to personally answer questions in the National Assembly every fortnight following the British parliamentary practice, turned up in the Assembly quite infrequently with an attendance of a mere 9 percent which is lower than even that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 16 percent who was criticized all the time for his low interest in parliamentary proceedings. The interest of MNAs in parliamentary proceedings also seems to be waning as 31 percent of sittings during the third year had to be adjourned due to lack of quorum.
The parliament, in general, and the National Assembly in particular, became increasingly dysfunctional as the working relationship between PTI and the opposition broke down and remained missing. The disruption of parliamentary proceedings has become a norm and frequent ugly scenes of members physically assaulting and hurling obscenities at each other are observed. The intensifying polarization in parliament may become a threat to order in the house during the upcoming address of the President at the start of the 4th parliamentary year and thereafter. This state of affairs and scares possibility of consensus is holding back the progress on a package of about 50 electoral reforms which the government considers extremely important.
In the meantime, the time wasted because of lack of quorum and pandemonium in the house has become a major issue of public interest because each work hour is estimated to cost about Rs. 25 million to the tax payers!