PAKISTAN is a parliamentary democracy and some aspects of the 1973 Constitution dealing with parliament seems to have been inspired by the conventions and practices perfected in the Palace of Westminster.

All leading politicians heap praise on the British parliamentary system and give examples of Westminster when they try to pinpoint good practices in parliamentary proceedings.

London is like a second home to the leading lights of all the three major political parties. The family of Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the supreme leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, lives in London where his sons, Hussain and Hassan, have businesses.

Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf chief, made his name while playing for English counties, apart from studying at the most prestigious educational institutions — Royal Grammar School in Worcester and Kable College, Oxford.

Both his sons, Sulaiman Isa Khan and Kasim Khan, live in the United Kingdom with his ex-wife Jemima Khan.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party, is a product of Britain’s education system. He not only graduated from the Oxford University but also did his initiation into the field of politics with a successful press conference in London in 2009.

1990 is the year Malik Meraj Khalid, who served as Speaker during Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1988-90, ran in the elections as a PPP candidate and lost

But how far do our politicians follow the conventions and parliamentary practices they so much admire?

Take as an example the office of the National Assembly Speaker. It imitates, in robe and other paraphernalia, the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The Commons Speaker is considered to be above party politics and seen as impartial in all public matters. Upon election as speaker, the individual resigns from his or her political party. Even after retirement, a former speaker takes no sides in partisan matters and sits as a cross-bencher if appointed to the House of Lords.

Even during a general election the Speaker still needs to be re-elected, but is normally not opposed by any major political party. The Speaker takes no stand on political issues and his name doesn’t appear in the ballot paper.

Instead, he is merely mentioned as “the Speaker seeking re-election” on the ballot paper and he doesn’t need to campaign.

Although all recent Speakers of the National Assembly were individuals of integrity and did their best to be true custodians of the house, any comparison with the British model will be out of place. Malik Meraj Khalid, who served as Speaker during Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1988-90, ran in the 1990 elections as a PPP candidate and lost.

Gohar Ayub Khan, who was Speaker from 1990 to 1993, returned to politics after his party’s victory in the 1997 elections and was made foreign minister.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, who served as Speaker from 1993 to 1996, went on to become prime minister in 2008.

Ayaz Sadiq, the last Speaker, is seeking re-election from his constituency in Lahore.

Picking candidates

The selection of candidates is another issue where those leading the political parties seem to be on another planet.

In the two major British parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, the selection of parliamentary candidates happens at the grass-roots level and the central leadership does not have much say in the matter.

In the ruling Conservative party selection is largely in the hands of local constituency associations. The leadership keeps an approved list of candidates to ensure an adequate representation for women and ethnic minorities, but local chapters don’t have to choose from these and people are chosen for the final interview often on the basis of informal networks and contacts.

Similarly, the Labour Party has a central list where, in some cases, safe constituencies are declared women-only seats, but generally anyone can be nominated by ward and trade union branches and the final decision is taken by a constituency committee, made up of delegates chosen by the branches.

The Labour even runs a “future candidates’ programme” to encourage a wide range of people to apply for party tickets.

But in Pakistan, allocation of tickets is the exclusive domain of the party leadership and workers having no say in the process. It is the central leadership of the party which interviews applicants and awards tickets to candidates without any grassroots level scrutiny.

In consequence, we see workers’ protests outside their leaders’ residences and angry press conferences by aspiring candidates hurling abuses and accusations on the party leadership.

Back-bench politics is another phenomenon that makes Pakistan’s parliament different from the Westminster model. Backbenchers are usually those who don’t have any government office, in case of the ruling party, and no shadow cabinet role, if they are in the opposition.

The Conservative Party has a private members’ committee, known as 1922 Committee, which consists of all backbench MPs. The committee, which came into being in 1923, meets weekly while parliament is in session and provides a way for backbenchers to coordinate and discuss their views independently of frontbenchers or those in the government. The committee can also play an important role in choosing the party leader.

Similarly, there is plurality of views in the Labour Party where MPs don’t necessarily toe the line given by the leadership and take voting decisions in parliament reflecting views of their constituents, party policy and their own conscience.

In Pakistan, political parties take a very dim view of those who are not 100 per cent `yes’ men and women. They are described as rebels in the media and frowned upon by their leaders.

Other differences can be found in matters related to election campaign and expenses, making Pakistan’s practices a violation of the spirit of Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2018



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