IT is a measure of both how far democratic politics in Pakistan has travelled and how much distance it has yet to cover that the historic completion of parliament’s five-year term has been greeted with both jubilation and anxiety. Jubilation because the against-the-odds full term has brought the country to the verge of one thing it has never had: a civilian-led electoral process in which both the opposition and the government have a shot at power. Anxiety because parliament’s full term has not really done much to address the flaws in the democratic process. Perhaps the immediate difficulty in assessing parliamentary performance over the past five years is that it is far too often conflated here with the government of the day. Parliament serves several distinct functions and it is against those benchmarks that its performance ought to be judged: providing a government; legislating; passing budgets; holding the government to account.
Paradoxically, for all the unhappiness with the federal government’s performance, parliament turned in a stellar performance when it came to its essential duty: selecting from among its numbers a stable government. Despite the PPP having just a little more than a third of seats in the National Assembly, the prime minister was elected unanimously in 2008, a second one was elected comfortably in 2012. The government itself was never close to being brought down by a vote of no-confidence. Messy and often unpalatable as it was, the reality is that without stability there can be no meaningful progress, and parliament delivered on this front. Next, the conventionally understood core function of parliament: legislating, including passing money bills. Here the performance was more mixed. The passage by this National Assembly of more than twice the number of bills than by the previous one, and three important constitutional amendments, are significant accomplishments. But the list of what was not done is far longer. On the security front, until a late spurt of poorly vetted legislation, the country’s counterterrorism and counter-insurgency framework was barely touched. On the economic front, the taxation system remained immune to reform. Public-sector enterprises were not restructured and privatisation remained dormant. Society’s drift towards extremism was watched passively.
Holding government, and parliament itself, to account was also a mixed performance. The Public Accounts Committee was handed over to the leader of the opposition, but little was done to make its recommendations automatically binding on the relevant ministries and departments. State policies, particularly national security, were debated in a quintessentially Pakistani sense — which perhaps counts as some progress — but tangible progress was elusive. Even on the one national security subject that has bipartisan support and space for civilians to manoeuvre, i.e. improving relations with India, parliament failed to push for meaningful breakthroughs. Accountability of politicians also stalled, leading to disruptive interventions by other institutions.
Going forward, what parliament needs to focus on is the strengthening of its own institution. With few professional staff, little research and scant resources, parliamentarians are essentially on their own when it comes to understanding the complex legislative and governance challenges the country faces. When the input is so ad hoc and unstructured, the output will be flawed. Spending more money on parliament may seem an affront to good sense in difficult economic times, but if done smartly it will be less of a case of splurging on already pampered parliamentarians and more about genuine institution building. And two individuals in particular need to rethink their choices if parliament is to gain the centrality to the democratic process it deserves. By opting to control the political process from outside parliament, President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif have given further credence to the old allegations of parliament being a rubber stamp. Both should embrace the logic of parliamentary democracy and take a seat at the right table.