AS the dust of electoral controversy settles down the focus of the national debate should now be not only on what needs to be done first but also on the best possible way to move forward, for the central issue in Pakistan is still the mode of governance.
The new prime minister may have to change his style of working and leading the government by realising that the parliamentary system does not envisage a prime minister with overriding powers, it means rule by the cabinet.
The ultimate sanction for all government actions lies with the cabinet and the advice a prime minister gives to the head of the state must be backed by the authority of the cabinet. Also it is the cabinet that is collectively answerable to parliament. Strong prime ministers tend to treat the cabinet as a body that is good only for endorsing their own ideas and not as a vehicle for ensuring decision-making by consensus. A good cabinet can offer effective checks to political leaders’ impulsive actions, the adoption of untested schemes and the temptation to bend the rules for a populist enterprise.
Any attempt to make decisions or policies at the urging of an informal caucus (consisting of friends, family members, bureaucratic aides, etc) will amount to an encroachment on the rights of the cabinet.
Pakistan has paid a heavy price for the slow pace of the change-over from a secret government to a transparent one. A closed system of governance undermines one of the salutary gifts of democracy — that in a democratic set-up the doings of the rulers become instantly known to the people unlike dictatorships whose mischief becomes public when it is often too late. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to ensure as transparent governance as possible.
A review of the right to information law appears to have become necessary so as to reduce the restrictions on disclosure and exemptions from the right to information to the absolute minimum.
One is surprised at the absence of accountability from the list of priority tasks for the new government although it should be at the top of the agenda. A new, comprehensive and effective accountability mechanism must be put in place at the earliest.
Without a system of across-the-board accountability good governance cannot be conceived; neither can the government enjoy due legitimacy nor will it be possible to relieve the courts of their unnecessary burden of going for the black sheep in the service of or among the politicians.
One of the most encouraging observations made by Mian Nawaz Sharif during his predictably goodwill-laced address to his party’s newly elected parliamentarians related to his decision to take all parties along.
This is in accord with the spirit of democracy which requires that once the electoral contest is over all parties in parliament become collaborators in ensuring governance in accordance with the will of the people.
While the opposition parties ought to continue their role as public watchdogs they should also help the ruling party in moving away from majoritarian rule, sometimes by censuring it for its false steps and sometimes by supporting its fair initiatives.
Despite its poor record in strengthening democratic conventions Pakistan has certainly taken, over the past few years, some significant steps in the direction of participatory democracy.
These included, for instance, increasing the role of multiparty standing committees of parliament, assigning the chairmanship of these committees to members of different parties, and giving the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee to the main opposition party.
These experiments are in their initial stages and need to be nursed with care and imagination before they can achieve the goal of broadening the democratic base of governance.
Another significant development in the recent past, for which the outgoing government deserves due credit, has been the opening of greater opportunities for private members to contribute to parliament’s legislative work.
Indeed, further and consistent encouragement to private members, especially the women among them, to undertake public-interest legislation will consolidate the democratic dispensation. This will also balance the government’s preoccupation with legislative work designed to increase the state’s coercive or regulatory powers.
It is perhaps time to take a critical look at the Rules of Business (Article 99 of the Constitution) for regulating the conduct of the federal government. These rules, originally framed by the viceroy in the colonial period, were revised by the government in 1973 and may have become due for changes required to strengthen the cabinet’s role in decision-making, to streamline intra-government consultation, to increase interaction with the public, and to remove loopholes and anomalies that cause matters to be taken to the courts.
The importance of the rules can be judged from the fact that Farooq Leghari, the then president, created a National Security Council by simply amending the rules.
One wonders whether in a parliamentary system the prerogative to lay down the rules for the conduct of the federal authority should continue to vest in the head of state.
The grand objective of taking everybody along is not realised by only making coalitions and giving ministries and parliamentary offices to persons outside the core ruling group.
It demands the creation of mechanisms not only for parliament’s effective oversight of the executive’s functioning but also for guaranteeing all state organs’ regular and meaningful interaction with civil society.
The sights must clearly be set on evolving a system that satisfies the ordinary women and men of Pakistan that their participation in governance does not start and end with the casting of ballots and that on everything that the government does or avoids doing their opinion matters. In fact, it is sought and considered or at least heard.