All is not well in Islamabad.
With the parliament declaring war on itself, there are now concerns that the system is overheating, and there is no cooling agent in sight. This week’s proceedings of the National Assembly have shown that the parliament has become almost dysfunctional. The upper and lower houses are run on the basis of rules and traditions. The Speaker of the house enforces the rules and the members uphold the traditions. They are today either incapable or unwilling to do what is required to keep the house running. This has grim consequences.
The leader of the opposition has always enjoyed the privilege — steeped in tradition — to speak uninterrupted. So has the leader of the house. This tradition was vanquished the day Imran Khan was elected as the leader of the house and stood up to make his maiden speech. The opposition created a ruckus as the new prime minister shouted through his address. This time, the treasury benches turned the tables on the opposition. But there is a difference. It is a small one, but a dangerous one.
“We have no problems with the PTI people making noise and heckling during Shehbaz Sharif’s speech,” says a senior PML-N leader. “We have a problem if he is forcefully stopped from making his speech.” The leader explains that the treasury benches deliberately started a physical altercation that posed a danger to the leader of the opposition. Speaker Asad Qaisar also failed to discipline the house and by adjourning the proceedings, deprived the leader of the opposition from finishing his speech. A new precedent has been set.
A tit-for-tat is waiting to happen. When it does, it will invite retaliation. Which in turn will invite counter-retaliation. As the treasury and the opposition benches start climbing up the escalatory ladder — which in fact they already have — it will soon become evident that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition will not be able to speak on the floor of the parliament. Add to this the fact that legislation is now confined to issuance of ordinances, and civility has evaporated out of these plush surroundings, and you can see a situation that is tailor-made for a disaster. But before the disaster happens, a smaller scale one would have already ensued with the dysfunctionality of the institution that constitutes the core of a democratic system. If the parliament has not become irrelevant yet, it is swiftly moving into that direction. Try and digest the repercussions of this impending outcome.
Try and also visualise the state of a democracy that remains in a perpetual state of confrontation. We have always had a turbulent relationship between the government and the opposition — often leading to the ouster of the government via presidential powers that have now been legislated away — but we have rarely witnessed the breakdown of even a semblance of a working relationship that is on display today. If the parliament is dysfunctional, debates are impossible, and normal legislation is unworkable, the system is fuelled by personal and political hate, the engine of democracy will start to hiss away steam and toxic vapour.
So what if it does so? One can argue that after five years, the voters can reject the party they hold responsible for jamming the system and flaming out its operational parts. The system will autocorrect with the manifestation of the electorate’s will through the general elections.
Ah, the general elections. Which brings us to the people responsible for holding them — and they have a few things to say. We all better pay attention.
The Election Commission of Pakistan has had just about enough. On Tuesday it said publicly it had severe objections to the electoral reforms bill bulldozed through the National Assembly last week. The commission has prepared a detailed document that lists out fairly comprehensively why it cannot support at least 28 of the 62 amendments in Election Act 2017. It says it had communicated this to the relevant parliamentary committee but none of these objections were reflected in the bill that has been passed. Here’s the alarming thing: the ECP says many of the major amendments in the bill violate numerous articles of the Constitution.
In the document it has prepared, the ECP has said in plain words that if this bill becomes law, it would not be possible for it to ensure that the general elections can be held in a free and fair manner. But there is something else in the ECP’s analysis that has ominous undertones. The amendments included in the new bill show a deliberate and very well deliberated move to transfer key powers away from the ECP to the National Database Registration Authority. The ECP says this move too is unconstitutional. Is this aimed at diluting the powers of the ECP so that the federal government can have more control over all things electoral? In essence then, the opposition is totally opposed to this electoral reforms bill, and now the ECP itself has severe reservations about it.
Now visualise the state of the next general elections if this bill becomes law. Try and digest the repercussions.
So what will happen with the bill? The opposition has betrayed its incompetence by failing to block it in the committee. Red Zone insiders say the combined opposition had the numbers to do so but many key members absented themselves during the proceedings. Some of them were senior members and so far they have not been hauled up by their leaders for this major failure. The government has refused to relent, so it is unlikely that any of the amendments that the opposition now proposes will be included in the bill. Given the numbers in the senate, it will not be a surprise if the government can push it through the upper house too.
This means the matter will go to court. Sources in the opposition say they will most probably file a petition in the Supreme Court. Once this is done, it is expected that the court will summon the ECP to give its opinion. The ECP has already stated on record that the bill in its present form violates the Constitution. The fight is about to spill over into the highest court of the land.
It fact, it is all about the fight, and the system today has been transformed into one large fight club. There’s fighting in the studio, fighting in the parliament and fighting on every forum on every issue at every opportunity for every reason. The arteries that pump blood into this system — laws, rules, conventions, traditions, and even the spirit of a representative order — these arteries are clogging with the cholesterol of loathing, hostility and contempt. Clogged arteries, as we all know, spell trouble for the body.
Which is why all is not well in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2021