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Shape of parliament

July 12, 2018


THE general election of July 2018 is no longer a battle between political parties for supremacy in parliament. It is not even a contest between 12,570 candidates cleared by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). It has degenerated into an unseemly, vicious skirmish between non-state actors and state institutions — each battling for jurisdiction beyond its constitutional authority.

One party demands a change in provincial governors — the prerogative of the president of Pakistan. A rejuvenated National Accountability Bureau frames and then pursues cases with a single-target partiality for which the infamous Star Chamber in Tudor times was notorious. Decisions of lower courts are overturned by superior courts. Legal precedents are ground under the heels of expediency. Across the country, noisy patriots assert that they can do the job better than professionals can, or should have done. Everyone has suddenly become a travelling ombudsman.

At the centre of this maelstrom is the ECP, headed by its principled and therefore much-maligned chairman. This third successive election should have been the ECP’s day in the sun. Instead, it has turned into a nightmare. It should end on the morning of July 26, but it will not. There will be Monday morning blues that will continue for months: accusations of pre-poll rigging, of intimidation, of bad faith, of interference, of manipulation, of selective disqualification. The presence of the army outside and inside polling areas will provide scant satisfaction to suspicious voters and to disappointed candidates.

Is Western-style democracy a cold-climate plant, unable to withstand hotter climes?

To outsiders, it must seem inconceivable that a country of Pakistan’s age, if not maturity, even after the experience of two successive general elections, should not be able to achieve a workable coordination between Nadra, the ECP and the cellular service providers. Strange, especially when Nadra issues CNICs for every adult above the age of 18, the ECP needs CNICs for its electoral lists, and mobile phone companies refuse to issue a number to anyone without a CNIC and verified thumbprint.

There are said to be 105.96 million voters registered with the ECP, 150m cellular subscribers (allow for multiple ownership), and only Nadra knows how many bona fide CNIC holders. Six years ago, Nadra disclosed that it had 92m CNIC holders. Presumably, over the past five years, that figure must have gone up — thirteen-year-olds in 2013 are now 18 and eligible to vote — and reduced by deaths over the same period.  

In December 2017, the ECP decided to verify 7.3m CNIC holders not registered with them, and simultaneously to do a door-to-door verification of those 0.923m thought to be dead. (The National Assembly was excluded; rigor mortis had already set in.) One investigator who put the figure of dead at 5m, asked: “Can the deceased rise from their graves, to complain that their votes have been cast?”

Many years ago, a US politician Lou Payne admitted to using voters’ names derived from tombstones: “We never vote for a man unless he would have voted our way if he had still been alive,” he explained, adding, “We respect a man’s convictions.”

Such sensitivity is not to be found in Pakistani politics. The electorate is waiting to be told what sort of parliament they should expect. It will be an arranged marriage: no choices, only consequences.

Is Western-style democracy a cold-climate plant, unable to withstand hotter climes?

In the 1830s, UK prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (one of Britain’s memorable parliamentarians) visited Mehmet Ali, the ruler of Egypt. They discussed the introduction of democracy in Egypt. “I will have as many parliaments as the King of England himself,” the pasha assured him. “But I have made up my mind, to prevent inconvenience, to elect them myself.”

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster have come to symbolise parliamentary democracy. After its House of Commons was bombed during the Second World War, it was rebuilt in 1943. At its reconstruction, that other great parliamentarian, Winston S. Churchill, commented: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Our own Parliament House in Islamabad took over 10 years to build. Even seven times that number has been too short a time to shape its occupants. But then, aren’t we still in the Stuart age of regicides, when monarchs were decapitated like Charles I or dethroned like James II?

Within parliament, the seating pattern reveals whether it encourages cooperation or confrontation. In the House of Commons and India’s Lok Sabha, political parties face each other. In our National Assembly, with its semi­circular pattern of seats, our parliamentarians hurl insults at each other’s profiles.

What will be the shape of the 2018 National Assembly? A PTI cricket bat? A PPP sword? A convoy of bearded jeeps masquerading as independents? Anything, say some, but a PML-N tiger.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018