WHILE the aftershocks of the Senate’s no-trust vote of Aug 1 are still being felt, it seems that some good may also have come of the exercise as a number of important and pertinent questions are being asked and reforms being suggested. The failure of the no-trust move by the opposition, which commanded a comfortable majority of 64 to 36, has led to a debate about political culture, parliamentary norms, election procedures and the state of political parties which hopefully will contribute towards enhancing public awareness about our political system and addressing some of the weaknesses of the latter.

A common refrain on the outcome of the no-trust vote against the Senate chairman was that there has been blatant buying and selling of the votes on the resolution motion. This complaint has probably been prompted by the fact that the no-trust resolution could receive only 50 votes in its favour compared to a combined strength of 64 legislators belonging to the political parties that moved the motion. While the use of pressure tactics and offering tempting rewards to legislators can’t be entirely ruled out because we have seen both the carrot and the stick repeatedly applied in similar situations in the past, it is extremely unfair to accuse all senators, who chose to vote against party direction, of horse-trading.

This blame game is unfair because the Constitution of Pakistan grants the legislators independence of choice through the system of secret ballot. This grant of independence of choice is deliberate and not the result of mere chance because in some other important elections and votes of confidence or no-confidence, not only has voting been made transparent and open, legislators are also liable to attract the charge of defection as per Article 63-A of the Constitution, which if proved, may lead to disqualification of the legislator.

It is unfair to accuse all senators, who chose to vote against party direction, of horse-trading.

The election of prime minister and chief ministers and votes of confidence for and of no-confidence against them are notable examples of the open-ballot scenarios prescribed in the Constitution. This also means that legislators have been given the independence to vote above all pressures and considerations including their political affiliation. Political parties should, therefore, either come to terms with this independence of choice, which the Constitution grants to legislators, or they should amend the Constitution.

In this context, we should remember that Pakistan has adopted the present definition of defection after a number of experiments. There was no defection clause in our original 1973 Constitution, and later, the pendulum swung to the other extreme where all party directions were to be obeyed by the legislators or they would face disqualification on account of defection. Currently the defection clause is applicable only in six instances listed in Article 63-A, which probably is a good compromise between party discipline and independence of choice for legislators. A lot of careful consideration should, therefore, be given before attempting to amend this part of the Constitution.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that legislators are not robots. They have an independent mind and it will be inappropriate to make legislators follow the party leadership’s directions all the time. There may have been times where legislators have fallen prey to temptation or succumbed to pressure, but such instances should be taken as exceptions and not the rule. Political parties should have their effective internal mechanisms of accountability like the ones successfully employed by the PTI and ANP in past Senate elections by expelling a number of their provincial assembly members from the party.

A question has been repeatedly raised as to why would 64 opposition senators ‘support the no-confidence resolution’ in the open voting by rising in their seats but only 50 would support it when put to vote through secret ballot, implying that it was not really the consideration of conscience which prompted them to vote against party direction. The fact is that in the first and open stage of the no-trust vote procedure, the legislators have to vote on granting permission to table the no-trust vote. It is here that 64 senators supported the tabling of the resolution. In the second stage, the legislators are required to vote through secret ballot on the no-trust resolution itself, and this is the real vote when a lesser number of legislators voted in favour of the no-confidence resolution. There is a fine but distinct difference between the two votes.

The opposition political parties may continue to blame the government for employing pressure tactics and offering inducements to opposition legislators, and there may be some truth to these allegations. But the real lesson of the outcome of the recent no-confidence vote is that political parties have to get their act together. They can’t continue to expect obedience from their legislators without bringing in some real, tangible and effective reforms in the way political parties are being run in general.

Political parties should develop a multi-stage candidate selection process, which is open and transparent and where the constituency of the legislator and not the top leadership has the primary say. Many of those who were awarded party tickets whimsically were reportedly the first ones to join forces with the opposite camp. A meaningful system of regular consultation with the legislators is essential to making them a part of decisions on the legislative agenda of the party. Parties need to invest in improving their organisations. At present, only one political party has its formal functioning office in the capital. Others have no office or only makeshift arrangements since the Supreme Court ordered offices out of residential areas some four years ago.

Lastly, parties have to either convince their legislators on why they should vote a certain way or respect their independence on those matters which are beyond the remit of the Anti-Defection Clause 63-A of the Constitution.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2019