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Bad for democracy

January 17, 2019

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THE combined opposition and Prime Minister Imran Khan have awakened to the need for a stronger parliament, but those welcome realisations do not appear to have occurred for necessarily welcome reasons. First, the parliamentary opposition’s decision to combine forces. Primarily consisting of the PML-N and the PPP, the second- and third-largest parties in parliament, the combined opposition appears to be interested in putting up a united front against the PTI-led federal government on a number of issues. A tentative alliance, its purpose and scope have yet to be made clear, but it has immediately been interpreted by the PTI-led federal government as an attempt by the parties to get a so-called NRO; a move to derail the PTI’s governance, legislative and reforms agendas; or perhaps both. While figures within the PPP and the PML-N have alluded to the need for a new Charter of Democracy and sundry measures to strengthen the democratic order in the country, the timing of the combined opposition’s resurrection certainly raises a number of questions. Indeed, with the top PML-N leadership already under detention and the PPP struggling to fend off serious allegations of corruption against the party’s leadership, is the combined opposition meant to build legitimate political pressure on the PTI or seek legal and political relief for opposition leaders?

Perhaps, however, Prime Minister Khan’s strategy to try and defend the honour and sanctity of parliament needs reconsidering too. In a blistering pair of tweets on Tuesday, the prime minister denounced the opposition for staging frequent walkouts in parliament, which tends to trigger a quorum count and a suspension of the parliamentary session. Mr Khan is partially right — the opposition’s enthusiasm for the walkout option has frequently disrupted the current parliament’s proceedings. But the prime minister was mostly wrong. To begin with, there is the irony of the prime minister tweeting about parliament from presumably the Prime Minister’s Office or residence, a stone’s throw away — could Mr Khan not make the short journey to parliament to make his point? Perhaps Mr Khan does not want to give the opposition an opportunity to heckle him and create rowdy scenes in parliament; however, he does appear to have forgotten his pledge to regularly attend the Assembly sessions and hold twice monthly, UK-style Prime Minister’s Questions. Also overlooked by the prime minister is the PTI’s own role in the parliamentary impasse: PTI MNAs and ministers themselves often appear uninterested in the functioning of parliament.

Between the opposition’s self-interested strategising and Mr Khan’s lacerating comments, there is the very real possibility of the public at large losing faith in the democratic project in the country. When politicians do not seem able or willing to look beyond personal and party interests, democracy can quickly erode. It is hoped that the opposition and government will reconsider their respective approaches.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2019