A wasted year

Updated January 02, 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE year 2019 is likely to go down in history as a wasted year in terms of democratic development. This is mainly because the government addressed the challenges of running a democratic dispensation by devaluing or diluting democratic principles, conventions and practices.

The PTI acceded to power in August 2018 but no questions about its performance during the remaining months of 2018 were valid because as a party without experience, it was entitled to acquire some understanding of democratic practices. From January 2019 onward, however, it had no excuse for not doing its job properly, which above all meant upholding the Constitution and democratic principles. At the beginning of 2020, the government may well ask itself how it has fared in meeting the demands of democratic governance.

Has the government shown parliament the respect due to it in a parliamentary system that Pakistan has adopted? Even the government’s most loyal defender will find it hard to reply in the affirmative.

The barrage of presidential ordinances confirms utter disregard for parliament. The government does not like the fact that the opposition has a majority in the Senate, but instead, of finding a consensus with the opposition on legislative matters, as is done in several democracies, it has chosen to bypass the Senate altogether. Even the constitutional obligation to convene a Senate meeting within 120 days of the end of the preceding session was not honoured.

The government should ask itself how it has fared in meeting the demands of democratic governance.

The government has failed to secure the opposition’s agreement on the choice of a new chief election commissioner and it does not have a two-third majority support for its nominee. Instead of resolving the matter through democratic give and take, the government is planning to change the constitutional provision and provide for decision by a simple majority.

Parliamentary democracy in its essence means rule by the cabinet. The present government has strange notions about the cabinet’s role as the dominant decision-making body. It has earned much goodwill for holding cabinet meetings with a regularity unknown in Pakistan’s history. It also deserves credit for leaking information about the agenda for a cabinet meeting. This is as it should be. But a tendency to avoid cabinet discussion on crucial issues is clearly discernible.

While the appointment of the CEO, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority, must be approved by the cabinet, there is no evidence that the extension of the term of the army chief’s had cabinet’s approval. The recent amendment to the NAB law was not routed through the cabinet and it is only after a protest by some ministers that a promise to consult it on such matters has been made. That does not answer the question as to whether the earlier legislative measures had been discussed in the cabinet.

The composition of the cabinet itself raises some awkward questions as a number of ministerial assignments have been given to non-elected advisers and special assistants to the prime minister. The cabinet has far too many strangers in its meetings.

The constitution of 1956 allowed appointment as a minister of a person who was not a member of the National Assembly (this concession was not allowed to a minister of state or a deputy minister) but he had to quit office after six months unless he got himself elected to the National Assembly. Under the 1962 constitution, the all-powerful president could appoint as a minister any person who was qualified to be elected as a member of the assembly. The 1973 Constitution reserved the choice of ministers to parliament’s members and this for a good reason.

Ministers as members of the cabinet are collectively answerable to the parliament but those who are elected members of the National Assembly are also answerable to the voters in their constituencies. They must retain the support of these voters if they wish to win their seats in the next election. This is how democracy is strengthened.

A non-elected minister doesn’t have to worry about voters’ support as he has no constituency. If the leader of the party winning the next election likes him he could again become a minister without enjoying the confidence of the electorate. He thus has an advantage over a minister who is an MNA. He may be a good minister but he is under no pressure to promote democratic values. Having non-elected ministers not only amounts to a deviation from the Constitution it also limits public input in governance and that is contrary to democracy.

One should sympathise with the government that its parliamentary party is short of ministerial talent because the party gave tickets to electable candidates regardless of their potential for ministership or their previous links with the parties now in opposition. Efforts are obviously necessary to groom the party’s members of parliament for ministerial posts so that reliance on non-elected elements can be reduced.

The controversy over the ordinance issued to amend the NAB law, which will be discussed on some other occasion, has shown considerable discord within the government. The prime minister’s special assistant for accountability says the business community had some apprehensions about the NAB law (which have been removed) while the NAB chief says he had already created a cell to remove the business community’s grievances and that taxation cases were being referred to the Federal Board of Revenue, implying thereby that there was no need for the new ordinance.

That the amending law was finalised without taking the NAB chairman on board does not confirm the government’s faith in governance by consensus. The amending ordinance is like the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and if it is not then let us have a new definition of NRO.

The reason behind the government’s habit of compromising constitutional provisions and democratic proprieties lies in its refusal to accept the opposition’s role in a democratic polity, which is an essential factor in replacing a majoritarian tyranny with participatory democracy. The government’s ability to stick to the Constitution, in letter and spirit, in the new year could rekindle hopes of democracy’s survival in Pakistan in its true form or in one of the acceptable versions.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2020