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Parliament’s work

August 08, 2018

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AFTER victory, a distancing from the public and most elected representatives usually begins. The distancing is blamed on the rigours of high office and security constraints, and tightly scripted public appearances quickly replace meaningful interactions with the public and the media. But incoming prime minister Imran Khan is vowing to approach his job in a more accessible manner than many of his predecessors. On Monday, he pledged to set aside one hour a week as prime minister for a so-called people’s hour to answer questions from the public. If implemented with purpose and sincerity, Mr Khan’s people’s hour could set a new precedent for an incumbent prime minister facing the public and answering the people’s concerns directly. In previous administrations, attempts at a people’s hour quickly devolved into little more than PR exercises and propaganda. As an opposition figure, Mr Khan has been one of the most visible national politicians and relatively accessible to the media, his party and supporters. As prime minister, he should be accessible at public forums to all Pakistanis, not merely individuals who agree with his politics.

While a people’s hour is a laudable choice, a prime minister’s responsibilities to parliament are central to strengthening democratic institutions. As an opposition figure, Mr Khan has been largely indifferent to parliament and its work; as prime minister, his attitude must surely change. Parliament has suffered gravely from the treatment meted out to it by its leaders over the past decade. Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister did routinely participate in parliamentary proceedings and was frequently present in his chambers, but the prime minister’s office during the last PPP-led federal government was arguably eclipsed by the presence of party boss Asif Zardari in the presidency. Yet, the undermining of parliament as the focal point of democracy was surely the greatest in the past decade during Nawaz Sharif’s term as prime minister. Once elected by the National Assembly as prime minister, Mr Sharif rarely participated in parliamentary proceedings. This lack of interest was quickly emulated by most members of Mr Sharif’s cabinet and by PML-N MNAs generally, leaving the National Assembly struggling to maintain quorum for the most part.

If Mr Khan is truly committed to strengthening democratic institutions, he must not only regularly participate in parliamentary proceedings but also present himself for questioning and accountability by the opposition. In the UK, Prime Minister’s Questions is held in the House of Commons every Wednesday at noon when parliament is in session and is broadcast live to the nation. It has provided some memorable and riveting political exchanges. If Mr Khan does opt for such a mechanism, the opposition should rise to the occasion too and put meaningful questions to the prime minister rather than merely indulge in grandstanding.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2018