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Parliamentary behaviour

Updated August 10, 2018

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AMIDST the serious allegations that the democratic process in the country has suffered setbacks and has been weakened, the ECP’s rap on the knuckles for senior politicians for violating the election code of conduct by using “abusive, insolent and derogatory” language against political opponents may appear to be a minor matter.

The ECP has made the right decision by ending proceedings against Imran Khan, Fazlur Rehman, Ayaz Sadiq and Pervez Khattak for using abusive language during campaign speeches after each of the political leaders apologised to the ECP. But the warning issued to the four should serve as a reminder to all politicians that the strident political discourse in the country needs to be moderated as a new parliament gets ready to be sworn in and the PTI assumes the responsibilities of governance for the first time at the centre and in Punjab.

While political grievances run deep and may increase, they ought to be settled in a manner that demonstrates that the civilian political leadership in the country is capable of addressing their differences without bringing the democratic process into disrepute.

Certainly, democracy requires robust political competition, and flaws in the democratic process ought to be candidly discussed. But national political leaders ought to lead by example and demonstrate that politics is about policy and governance disagreements, not about personal vendettas, abuse and rancour.

The PTI leadership may have played a role in the coarsening of the national political discourse in recent years, but Ayaz Sadiq and Fazlur Rehman’s comments during the election campaign served as a reminder, if one was needed, that unacceptable political rhetoric has a long, undesirable history in national politics.

No mainstream party can claim to have never transgressed when it comes to reasonable boundaries on political speech against its opponents. Indeed, the bitterly partisan and personalised politics of the 1990s demonstrated the great danger to democracy itself when politics became little more than tearing down an opponent.

Thus far, since winning the general election, the PTI has set a welcome and conciliatory tone in its political statements and appears to want to focus on issues of governance. It remains to be seen if that new sentiment will prevail when inevitably political and governance crises erupt.

The PTI should pay particular attention to its choice of speaker of the National Assembly. A credible and firm but fair MNA in the speaker’s chair can help defuse potential unpleasantness and guide the parliamentary proceedings towards substantive matters.

But much will also depend on the tone that the opposition, particularly the PML-N, chooses to adopt. The PML-N does not have a very good record in opposition, with poor choices made and few democracy-strengthening actions taken.

The incoming parliamentary leadership of the PML-N should prioritise policy over personal attacks.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2018