Elections 101: What are your MPAs and MNAs actually meant to do?

It is not their job to fix roads, public parks or create jobs for their constituents.
Published July 2, 2018

This article was originally published on July 2, 2018 on Dawn.com

As the election season picks up, news channels are brimming with cheap footage of candidates getting heckled in their constituencies over what they have done and how they have let their constituents down.

Typically, while the video plays, the newscaster, who often has zero understanding of what the role of the member of national assembly (MNA) or member of provincial assembly (MPA) is, chuckles and smirks as if the candidates deserve this.

Having witnessed this painful misconception about our elected officials for the last week or so, I write this article to explain in clear terms the role and duties of our elected officials at national and provincial levels.

The intention here is to clarify what their duties are vis-à-vis what the public assumes their duty to be, as this disconnect in understanding is often the main reason for declining confidence in democracy.

Let’s start with clarifying that MNAs or MPAs are not responsible for building roads, bridges, getting transfers done, hiring new people to government departments and generally doing any tangible work in their constituency.

Yes, I realise this is a surprise but none of the stuff people keep expecting from our elected representatives under the of-repeated term ‘kaam kara dein’ is within their jurisdiction or domain.

An MNA is a member of the national assembly. There are currently 342 members of the national assembly of Pakistan. Each of these members is a representative of their constituency at the federal level.

According to the constitution, their job description can be summed up in three roles: legislation, oversight and mediation.

The primary role of the MNA is that of a legislator. They are supposed to come up with bills that tackle specific governance issues as well as policies that can be voted on to become laws.

The purpose of this exercise is to have representatives of the people cast a vote on policy matters based on the policy inclinations and stances of their constituents.

This way, whatever policy and laws are passed have the stamp of approval from most of the people in Pakistan through their elected representatives.

Secondly, an MNA is supposed to provide oversight on government operations and works. This means that through committees constituted on specific issues, MNAs are assigned to keep oversight on a host of issues.

They can hold hearings, call for public discussions, demand answers from bureaucracy and government ministers as well as come up with new policies and introduce them as bills in parliament.

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Graphics by Mushba Said
Graphics by Mushba Said

Specifically, opposition MNAs yield a lot of power in committees where they can block or introduce extra oversight on government’s performance as well as hold special hearings on issues. Committees do most of the heavy lifting in most cases anyway.

People might not realise it because they do not see it covered in the media as this is not as exciting as fights and mudslinging, but this is the kind of boring work that is the true domain of an MNA.

Lastly, the role of the MNA is to be a link between his constituents and administration. This means the MNA is supposed to operate as a mediator when conflicts arise between their constituents and district, provincial and even federal administrators.

So, issues like more access to government funding for education or improvement in healthcare facilities are things where an MNA can plead a case to the administration at various levels.

Every now and then a government will sanction development funds for an MNA to help with these large-scale projects they have argued in favour of. Beyond that, an MNA really does not have much power.

This is all they can really do.

The assumed power of an MNA is something I will address later, and I will explain why it is simply a myth.

Similarly, the MPA — member of the provincial assembly — has identical powers at the provincial level. They have an added responsibility to provide oversight on the provincial financial fund that comes through the National Finance Commission Award. It is an extension of the oversight duties that an MNA is supposed to do.

In addition to this, MNAs and MPAs can both raise questions during parliamentary proceedings, demand answers, raise point of orders and so on.

In basic terms, they are legislators who are supposed to create legislation in line with the constitution of Pakistan to fulfill policy agendas by creating laws that can be implemented by government agencies.

It is not their job to fix roads, public parks or create jobs for their constituents.

So why do media and the public at large assume they are supposed to do this? Why does the media enjoy when a legislator gets ambushed by constituents and why do the constituents think their legislators are supposed to do all this for them?

The answer to these questions is down to the misunderstanding of what power means and how the system works.

MNAs and MPAs are also partly to blame for this. During elections, they seem to make sweeping promises about things they have no control over.

For instance, they promise jobs as well as infrastructure projects that are not in their domain at all. And as people do not know this, they simply start expecting things like this as a given from MNAs and MPAs.

Over the years, courtesy of a misinformed TV media and word of mouth, we are in a situation where a large chunk of public thinks that the job of an MNA and MPA is that of local government and city administration.

Because we do not spend time teaching governance at any level in our education system, our public has a twisted understanding of it and the players involved in it.

For instance, it is not the job of the chief minister of a province to personally take notice, or road building works and order new bridges to be built.

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His job is to push forward a policy agenda and seek interventions that can help push forward the overall improvement of the province through implementation of a policy agenda.

This work sounds boring, but this is what we elect our representatives for. The job of building roads and improving government services is with the local government i.e. city mayors and district chairpersons.

Getting people inducted into government is under no one’s domain because that is corruption. I personally find it fascinating that people demand the politicians seeking their votes perform corruption to get them government jobs that do not require them or for whom they have no qualifications for.

But this just highlights the kind of twisted perception of power and duties we have of our public officials.

So, an MNA or an MPA are just legislators. They cannot really promise their constituents much other than promising to make better policy and laws. None of which sounds glamorous or even entertaining.