Govt urged to convene parliament, provincial assemblies

Updated March 27, 2020

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The National Assembly and Punjab Assembly cut short their ongoing sessions at a time when the number of Covid-19 cases started to rise. — APP/File
The National Assembly and Punjab Assembly cut short their ongoing sessions at a time when the number of Covid-19 cases started to rise. — APP/File

ISLAMABAD: The parliament and the provincial assemblies should take centerstage in order to forge a political consensus and provide leadership to the executive in shaping Pakistan’s response to the multifaceted challenges posed by the rising spread of the novel coronavirus in the country, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) said on Tuesday.

Fafen, which is a network of local civil society organisations working to strengthen electoral, legislative and local governance, has urged the federal and provincial governments to immediately convene sessions of parliament- the National Assembly and Senate - as well as provincial assemblies, through teleworking or other means to avoid physical congregation, for deliberating and finalising proposals and plans to tackle looming health, economic and administrative challenges.

Fafen asserted that Pakistan’s legislatures must provide or update legal instruments and policy guidelines to federal and provincial governments in the interest of complementarity, consistency and uniformity so that the efforts by the executive are more systematically directed towards containing the epidemic and minimising its impact on the economy as well as public life.

“The sheer scale of the problem warrants a broader political consensus forged in a transparent manner by the elected houses to formulate short-term and long-term strategies to address the crises emanating from the pandemic,” it said in a statement, adding that “shutting down the legislatures and their support services at this critical moment is hampering the consultative decision-making, and may aggravate the political fissures compromising the executive’s efforts.”

Pakistani legislatures’ engagement in shaping the governmental response to Covid-19 has been lacklustre so far, especially if compared to the legislatures of other countries hit by the disease.

Fafen says parliaments in seven worst-hit countries are in session to handle Covid-19

The National Assembly and Punjab Assembly cut short their ongoing sessions at a time when the number of Covid-19 cases started to rise. The legislatures also put an embargo on committee meetings.

Contrary to this, many national parliaments are leading the policy debate on their countries’ responses to the disease. Seven of the worst-hit democratic countries have their parliaments in session, which are debating and voting special measures to handle the emergency. These are the US House of Representatives, Germany’s Bundestag, Spain’s Chamber of Deputies, South Korea’s National Assembly, the Dutch House of Representatives, Indian Lok Sabha, French Senate and the Parliaments of the United Kingdom and Canada.

These parliaments have introduced special measures to maintain their ability to keep functioning in the wake of rising infections.

The Council of Common Interest (CCI) and National Economic Council (NEC) may also be employed to their optimal constitutional mandate at a time when the federation and provinces appear to be taking conflicting positions on ways to deal with the crisis.

Nevertheless, it says the parliament’s initiative to constitute a broad-based national committee on economy and health with the representation from all federating units and parliamentary parties is a welcome step but should be best achieved through consensus and dialogue during parliamentary sessions.

Fafen also suggests the speakers and chairpersons of the federal and provincial legislatures adopt precautionary measures to minimise the risk of infection among legislators and secretariat staff. These measures may include temporary restrictions on public tours to the parliament, limiting the number of parliamentary events and meetings, utilising teleconferencing and other technological solutions wherever possible, and availability of latest advisories to legislators for prevention.

The main opposition PML-N has submitted a requisition notice to the National Assembly Secretariat for convening the assembly session to discuss the situation arising out of the increase in cases of coronavirus in the country. The notice was submitted by the party on March 19 and under the Constitution, the speaker is bound to convene the assembly session by April 3.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020