THE brawl in the National Assembly this week is an unfortunate yet fitting metaphor for the state of political debate in our country.

During the session, our MNAs, though adult men and women, behaved no better than unruly children having a go at each other in the playground because they didn’t like what the other was saying. Punches were thrown, budget documents lobbed from the treasury benches to the opposition and vice versa, and the most unsavoury, gendered curse words were liberally dispensed. The principle of decorum and sanctity of parliament was absent as charged MNAs flailed their arms about and unleashed aggression.

Scuffles, sloganeering and name-calling are not new occurrences in the hallowed halls of our parliament. But during this session — in which opposition members were expected to make their budget speech — the sergeants-at-arms were called in to maintain order and protect lawmakers from each other.

Some observers were quick to point out that, in fact, these fights are not unique to Pakistan, and are seen during parliamentary proceedings in other countries too. None of this, however, is a justification for why our elected representatives should behave like hooligans, or why such conduct during Assembly proceedings is becoming normalised. While MNAs certainly have the right to register their protest in the Assembly, violent and aggressive behaviour is unacceptable. It sends a dangerous message to the voters of the respective parties. If neither the treasury nor the opposition benefit from such behaviour, why do we see it continuously being played out during Assembly sessions? And what kind of message does this send to the outside world about the state of Pakistan’s democracy?

Read: Sparring in parliament

Our lawmakers individually and collectively must do better. Both sides have some serious thinking to do when it comes to communication, as these episodes only undermine the public’s trust in institutions. And as the ruling party at the centre, it is, unequivocally, the PTI’s responsibility to set the tone for civilised debate in the Assembly. Its own speaker is utterly powerless when chaos ensues. Challenging government actions is the work of the opposition, and its criticism can, if the government wishes, result in a robust debate. Here, the opposition, too, must be mindful that its criticism does not veer towards personal attacks and insults.

Of late, the ruling party has repeatedly questioned why the opposition should be allowed to speak if it does not let the prime minister speak in the Assembly — an attitude that reflects high-handedness and creates the impression that, to the government, parliamentary debate is irrelevant. Both sides must restrain volatile elements in their parties. They should allow saner voices to engage on the issue of debate and create space for opinions to be aired and heard. The energy spent on shouting matches can be put to far better use, given the serious challenges that face our country.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2021

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