AFTER a session of utter pandemonium and a distasteful war of words, normalcy finally returned to the National Assembly on Thursday. There was no shouting or rowdy behaviour as Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif made his budget speech, challenging the government on its key financial commitments. Mr Sharif spoke for nearly two hours, with treasury bench members silently listening to his criticism. At one point, the speaker directed Murad Saeed, one of the PTI’s chief agitators in the Assembly, to take a seat in order to let Mr Sharif finish his speech. It is miraculous how, just days after the ruling party and the opposition were at each other’s throats and would not stop at anything to tear the other down, the two have agreed to a ‘peaceful coexistence’. This announcement was made by the government following a meeting between the PTI and opposition MNAs at Parliament House, in which the latter agreed to withdraw the no-confidence motion against the deputy speaker, Qasim Suri, and the government agreed to form a committee to review the passage of 21 bills which the opposition said were passed ‘in haste’. Both sides agreed that no individual would be targeted or insulted during the budget speech, and that parliamentary party leaders would ensure that their MNAs respected parliamentary norms in the Assembly. The change of tone of the ruling party lawmakers is indeed remarkable, for just days earlier, they were bullish about denying the opposition the floor and adamant to teach it a lesson for preventing the prime minister from speaking during previous sessions.

How did this U-turn come about? Was public criticism of the shamefully aggressive behaviour during Wednesday’s session really what pushed both warring sides to the negotiating table? Though this explanation would be welcome, it appears unlikely, as ruling party MNAs and ministers were uncompromising in the aftermath of that mayhem. Who ‘empowered’ Speaker Asad Qaiser to engage both sides and broker a truce, when for months he had watched helplessly as madness descended on each session? What was it that finally brought about maturity and agreement between the two sides? Could it be the intervention of a third party?

Though this new vow of civility is welcome, it remains to be seen how long it will last. The toxic relationship between the two sides is not lost on anyone. The government leaves no stone unturned when it comes to calling opposition members names and heaping all shades of allegations on them. The opposition parties, too, try to outdo the ruling party by resorting to the same. The sad reality is that in both cases it is democracy that loses. A dysfunctional parliament, where political civility is entirely absent, only amplifies political cynicism and delegitimises the political process. Our elected representatives should not need reminders about engaging in behaviour that casts democracy in an unfavourable light.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2021

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