Curbs on politicians

Published January 8, 2015
Senator Raza Rabbani. —APP/File
Senator Raza Rabbani. —APP/File

BEFORE, during and after the votes in favour of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution were cast on Tuesday, several parliamentarians openly struggled with their need to abide by the decision of their party chiefs to support the amendment.

But that only emphasised the undemocratic spirit of certain constitutional requirements and the utter lack of internal democracy within political parties.

Read: Parliament passes 21st Constitutional Amendment, Army Act Amendment

Perhaps unknown to many, no parliamentarian had the individual right to choose how to vote on Tuesday — that decision belonged to the party thanks originally to the 14th Amendment. Passed in 1997 in an era where floor-crossing and the buying of votes in parliament was rife, the 14th Amendment sought to address the problem by denying individual parliamentarians the right to switch sides after election or vote against party decisions.

Subsequently, the newly added Article 63A of the Constitution was narrowed via the 17th and 18th Amendments, but three exceptions have been maintained. A parliamentarian stands to be disqualified if he votes against his party in the election of the prime minister; a vote of confidence or no-confidence; and a vote on a money bill or, post the 18th Amendment, a vote to amend the Constitution.

Thus, any parliamentarian who opposed the 21st Amendment could vote ‘no’ and either immediately resign or suffer the potential ignominy of being unseated by his or her party leader. Where once party discipline in a sea of rampant, anti-democratic indiscipline may have made sense, the restraints on parliamentarians are now acting as a brake on the democratic system.

Also read: Raza Rabbani in tears: 'Ashamed to vote against conscience'

Sad as it was to see a democrat like Senator Raza Rabbani shed tears in parliament, the present era of parliamentarians must also share some of the blame: the clause in the Constitution preventing parliamentarians from voting against their party in constitutional amendment votes was added by the 18th Amendment — a process that Senator Rabbani himself stewarded.

Even four short years ago, in 2010, many of the very same representatives in parliament today decided that it was safer to have consensus than to allow members to choose whether to support a constitutional amendment. Perhaps none of them realised they could be called upon by their own parties to vote against the spirit of the Constitution itself.

The other problem is, of course, how the parties are run — and how decisions are made inside parties. When every member of nearly every major party owes his or her position in the party to the party leader, the possibility of a challenge to the leader’s decision is remote.

Simply, without intra-party democracy there can be no real democratic decisions. When the leader is the party, when the leader is for life and when the leader decides who else gets what position, it is difficult to have spirited debate or meaningful dissent. Can the constitutional constraints and intra-party realities be changed though?

Published in Dawn January 8th , 2014

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