IN November 2000, a year after Gen Musharraf imposed martial law, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan convened a meeting of several political parties in order to form a national democratic alliance. It was agreed at this meeting that one of the first priorities of this alliance would be to jointly evolve a code of conduct for the political parties to follow. I was asked to prepare the first draft of such a code. I sent this draft to Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan on Nov 24, 2000. But the very next day, workers of the PML-Q forcibly took over the PML-N secretariat on Margalla Road in Islamabad and the ‘alliance’ did not meet again. The need for a code of political conduct has once again come under discussion.
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The political process in Pakistan has suffered enormously from the lack of a culture of tolerance and the important democratic tradition of respecting dissent. This has led to a highly polarised and personalised pattern of politics and the recurrent breakdown of the democratic process. Relations between the government and the opposition in the recent past have been so tense that their members did not even attend each others’ social functions. There was also visible discrimination against members of the opposition in the allocation of development funds and other privileges.
To evolve a responsible and sustainable democratic system, it is necessary that all major political parties in the country come to an understanding on a strategic framework for the future political order in Pakistan. Presented below is the draft I had prepared in November 2000.
All the component political parties in the national democratic alliance have agreed to enter into and abide by a code of conduct consisting of the following main elements: respecting the sanctity of the ballot and the supremacy of parliament and other democratic institutions; ensuring mutual respect and tolerance; safeguarding the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; protecting freedom of expression and an independent media; and evolving a consensus on issues of national importance. These elements are spelled out in the following paragraphs.
All parties must come to an understanding on a strategic framework for Pakistan’s future political order.
Sanctity of the ballot: The main pillar of democracy is the sanctity of the ballot. The opposition parties which do not win an election would show respect for the verdict of the people and not challenge the winning party or winning coalition’s mandate to rule for the tenure prescribed in the Constitution. Similarly, the government would allow the opposition to play its constitutional role inside and outside parliament. We also undertake to safeguard the independence of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections.
Mutual respect and tolerance: Tolerance and respect for dissent is another important pillar of democracy. Parliamentary democracy, by definition, is based on adversarial politics in which the opposing halves of the popular mandate have to face each other. But this has to be done within the limits laid down in the Constitution. It is the right of the government to govern and to lay down policies and priorities. Similarly, it is the right of the opposition to criticise these policies and priorities and to propose alternative policies but this task has to be undertaken in a constructive and tolerant manner.
The opposition would not be penalised or victimised for criticising the government. All members of the opposition would be met with respect and given the same treatment and privilege as members belonging to the government.
Rule of law: In a constitutional democracy, the government is the creation of the Constitution. The respect that any law enjoys depends on the legitimacy of the lawgiver and its fairness, but above all, upon its impartial application. We would therefore uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary under all circumstances. We would also safeguard the neutrality and effectiveness of the civil services, and protect the financial and other state institutions against political pressures. In keeping with the principles of good governance, the system of merit-based recruitment and promotions would be followed at all levels of government.
Freedom of expression: The global information revolution has made freedom of information and freedom of expression a cardinal reality. We commit ourselves to accept and protect this right in letter and spirit, and when in government, not to control, directly or indirectly, the electronic and print media. We will strive to promote greater access of information to ensure more transparent governance.
Consensus on national issues: In a democratic polity, governments are temporary and often partisan, but the state is permanent and sacrosanct. The state in itself is the sum total of its institutions. We would therefore strengthen all state institutions and ensure continuity of contracts and undertakings with international agencies and other entities. We would also develop a national consensus on issues of national importance through a system of consultation in the process of formulating policies and initiatives on major issues. The opposition must fully and constructively participate in such consultations on vital foreign policy, security and economic issues.
Solemn pledge: We the representatives of political parties have affixed our signatures on this code of conduct as a manifestation of our solemn pledge to adhere to its provision in letter and spirit, both in government and in opposition.
All other political parties joining the national democratic alliance will have to sign this pledge to show their adherence to this code of conduct. However, the responsibility we have assumed to follow this code to strengthen democracy, will never cease if at any time in the future, we are no longer members of the national democratic alliance or the alliance itself is disbanded at some future date.
The writer is a former senator, finance minister and foreign minister of Pakistan. He was secretary general of PML-N from 1993 to 1999.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2018