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Legislators’ vanishing act

November 24, 2017

POOR attendance by a sizeable number of members of the national parliament and the provincial assemblies in Pakistan is almost a norm and so is the frequent interruption in parliamentary proceedings due to lack of quorum (mandatory minimum 25 per cent members in each house). The situation has been recently aggravated by the absence of a large number of members of the National Assembly and Senate at a time when a critical piece of legislation was to be passed recently.

The 24th Constitutional Amendment Bill was to be voted on in the National Assembly on Nov 2 but the meeting had to be adjourned when the house was found to be not in quorum. It is another matter that the bill would not have been passed anyway because it lacked the required support of two-thirds majority, but it was extremely embarrassing to see that even one-fourth of the total number of members were not present to debate the bill.

This was no ordinary piece of legislation; it was a constitutional amendment seeking to authorise the fresh delimitation of assembly constituencies based on the provisional results of the 2017 population census. The Election Commission had made it plain that if parliamentary sanction was not received by Nov 10, they would not be able to complete the exercise of fresh delimitation in time to hold the general election by the due date which, in turn, could trigger a constitutional crisis of sorts.

Even without the repeated reminders by the Election Commission, parliament should have acted fast to debate and pass the required legislation well in time. Instead, the continued absence of such a large number of members of the Assembly, when the critically needed constitutional amendment was to be debated and passed, is seriously alarming. The situation was even more desperate in the Senate where the 24th Constitutional Amendment Bill was to be debated and voted on after it was finally passed by the National Assembly on Nov 16. The required number to pass the bill in the Senate continued to persist at the time of writing.

The voters should start questioning their MPs about their attendance record.

The Senate had only 58 members present on Nov 17 against the 69 required as a minimum to pass the bill and the matter had to be deferred till Nov 20, the next working day, when again only 59 members showed up and the critical bill could not be passed.

Poor attendance is not a phenomenon linked to a particular law. Earlier, the National Assembly had embarrassed itself by not ensuring a quorum for five consecutive days in September this year. The Senate session in October-November 2017 showed an average of only 13 (12pc of the total) members present at the start and 15 (14pc) at the conclusion of the sittings.

Many countries in the world do not have a quorum requirement for parliament sittings. For example, the UK has no quorum requirement and sometimes parliamentary proceedings continue even with thin attendance. However, there is a significant difference between British and Pakistani parliamentary practices regarding the attendance of members. In the UK parliament, members hold their parliamentary committee meetings concurrent with the plenary sessions. The chances, therefore, are that British MPs are in a committee meeting within the parliament building if not in the plenary session. As soon as a vote is scheduled, the bells start ringing and CCTV screens placed in all committee rooms and other areas announce the voting time and all MPs rush to the plenary session to participate in the voting.

In Pakistan, parliamentary committees are generally not scheduled to meet during plenary sessions. British political party discipline enforced by the powerful party whips is also extremely effective. It is very rare that a British MP schedules another engagement while parliament is in session. The British parliament, like most other old parliaments, maintains a parliamentary calendar for the entire parliamentary year. This calendar is generally adhered to with very few exceptions. British MPs can, therefore, plan their overseas trips or family engagements during the holidays. Pakistani legislatures have also started producing a yearly parliamentary calendar but the level of adherence to the dates is not very strict. A carefully drawn parliamentary calendar which clearly spells out the time MPs can take out for other activities coupled with an organised party whip system can be considered by our political leadership for implementation in Pakistan for improving the MPs’ attendance.

The political leadership will need to set a positive example for their fellow party members when it comes to attendance. Unfortunately, former prime minister and leader of the house in the National Assembly Nawaz Sharif attended very few sittings. He attended some 13pc of the sessions in the National Assembly during the first three years of the Assembly. The attendance rate was much lower in the Senate.

The PPP leaders have a relatively better record of attendance in the legislatures. Former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani attended close to 90pc of the National Assembly sittings. The current leader of the opposition, Khurshid Shah, has also attended some 76pc of the sessions.

PTI chairman Imran Khan seldom attends the Assembly sittings and his attendance record is around 6pc. If party heads regularly attend parliamentary sessions and use parliamentary platforms for making important policy announcements, instead of holding media conferences, televised addresses and multiparty conferences, chances are that other MPs will also start giving the required importance to these sittings of the country’s legislatures.

More importantly, the voters should start questioning their MPs about their attendance record and communicate a message that they do care about their presence in parliament as much as, if not more than, their presence at family weddings and funerals. Our MPs are far more hardworking and spend far more time on their constituents than their counterparts in other countries do. All we voters have to do is to let them know that we consider their presence inside parliament equally important.

The writer is the president of Pildat.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2017