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Role of institutions

Updated February 21, 2018


IT is a good idea, but much will depend on the quality of the debate itself.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has called for a parliamentary debate on the role of institutions and the supremacy of parliament — topics that are close to the hearts of democrats, but of particular concern to the PML-N in recent times.

Clearly, the legal woes of the Sharif family and ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s tirades against the superior judiciary and, occasionally, other state institutions have prompted Mr Abbasi to suggest the particular parliamentary debate.

If the PML-N’s purpose in calling for a parliamentary debate is to pit one institution against another and use the cover of parliamentary legislative supremacy to allow Mr Sharif to once again become eligible for public office, the debate will be a missed opportunity, and potentially damaging to Pakistan’s democratic project.

Now is the moment for serious, thoughtful debate, not wild political gesticulating.

Certainly, the centrality of democracy and parliament’s supremacy have been weakened by a number of events in recent times.

The resurgence of anti-democratic forces and encroachment on the domain of elected representatives by other institutions have combined to leave questions marks hanging over not just the continuity of the democratic system but also the quality of democracy in the country.

While much of Mr Sharif’s and the PML-N’s criticism of the superior judiciary in particular has been excessive and ill-advised, there are legitimate questions that can be asked about the surge in judicial activism and the constitutional reasoning employed in certain judicial interventions.

Moreover, the security establishment’s assertiveness in the foreign policy and national security domains has reached arguably unsustainable levels.

A democracy in name only may suit anti-democratic forces but is a troubling possibility for anyone seeking the influence of democracy on the country’s foreign policy and national security goals.

Yet, Mr Abbasi and the PML-N should also examine their own role in diminishing the standing of parliament.

While all political parties have failed to live up to the highest standards of parliamentary conduct that can be expected in a democracy, the PML-N has adopted a particularly dismissive stance.

Mr Sharif was famously disdainful of parliament, preferring to skip the vast majority of sessions in his third stint as prime minister.

Just this week, the PML-N’s defence minister declined to inform the Senate, even in an in-camera session, of where Pakistani troops have been deployed in Saudi Arabia.

As several opposition figures have repeatedly pointed out, the PML-N turns to parliament when it is in political trouble, often of the self-inflicted kind, and then reverts to type.

Parliamentary debates on matters of national importance are certainly welcome and should be encouraged.

But the PML-N needs to demonstrate a sustained commitment to both the form and substance of democracy.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018