The Speaker versus the Constitution

In seemingly acting out of fear of his boss Imran Khan, Qasim Suri has dealt a great blow to Pakistan's fragile democracy.
Published April 6, 2022

With the dismissal of the no-confidence motion — or more aptly, the no-confidence resolution — the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly departed from the duties bestowed upon him — not just in a personal capacity — but on the esteemed office that he occupied.

Accusations of bias have plagued parliamentary speakers across the globe — John Bercow, a former speaker of Britain’s House of Commons, is still refused a House of Lords peerage due to his perceived anti-Brexit bias. In the US, Nancy Pelosi was widely criticised as Speaker of the House for being overly partial against Trump.

These criticisms pale, however, in front of the blatant abuse of the Constitution carried out by Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri this Sunday, when he arbitrarily decided that the entire opposition — comprising over 197 elected members of parliament — was involved in a foreign plot to overthrow the government.

Not only did he lack the Constitutional right to pass a personal judgement on the veracity of the ‘foreign plot’ claim under Article 5, he violated his responsibilities under Schedule 2 of the Rules of Conduct of Business to supervise a fair, unbiased voting process on a resolution presented before the Assembly.

If only he had looked into history, there was great precedent for him to stay true to his constitutional duties and carry out his responsibilities in a legal manner.

Indeed, one need not look further back than January 2021 when Donald Trump’s presidency was slowly unraveling in the United States. Faced with certain electoral defeat, Trump called on his long-time ally Vice President Mike Pence to halt the electoral counting process through a dubious reading of the US Constitution.

With the Republican Party fully under Trump’s control — as is the PTI under Imran Khan’s — opposing the president’s order was bound to be political suicide for Pence. Yet it was loyalty to the state that prevented him from subverting the law. He later remarked that he was constrained by the Constitution from “claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not".

If Qasim Suri acted out of fear of his boss Imran Khan, or indeed out of his own political interest, then he has truly dealt a great blow to the already fragile democratic system in Pakistan.

Divided loyalties?

Deputy Speaker Suri’s boss is not Imran Khan — it is the National Assembly. The Speaker of Parliament is meant to serve as a champion of parliamentarians.

When King Charles I of England sought to dissolve the House of Commons in 1642 and demanded the support of Speaker William Lenthal, the latter refused to submit to the King, saying: “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.

It was the first time a Speaker had declared allegiance to Parliament over the king, and the message was clear — not even the King of England was above a democratically elected Parliament.

These allegiances of loyalty to Parliament are not simply alien concepts only practiced in the West.

Speaker Maulvi Tamizuddin’s role in challenging the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly in 1954 by Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed is an early example of a Speaker siding with the rule of law over an authoritarian leader. His decision to take the matter to court and argue against the dissolution provides a great example of how Speakers should act when faced with undemocratic elements.

A chequered history

Ironically, it was Tamizuddin’s case, “Federation of Pakistan vs Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan”, that gave birth to a legal doctrine — the Doctrine of Necessity — that has since been used as a justification by anti-democratic forces to subvert the Constitution.

This doctrine is a smear on the Supreme Court’s image as a beacon of justice that still continues to be invoked to date. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that Chief Justice Muhammad Munir’s utilitarian approach may have ultimately allowed further subversions of the Constitution if it is deemed to be in the so-called “greater interest” of society, paving the way for the events of April 3, 2022.

As a result of such doctrines, the government seems to be comfortable in openly disregarding the rules laid out in the Constitution — whether it is the passing of unfounded judgments of treachery against opposition members, or turning the non-partisan role of the Speaker into a political tool.

Less a "surprise" and more of an ambush, Imran Khan’s “trump card” is not aimed at the opposition, but rather at the Constitution of Pakistan and every citizen who wishes to abide by it.

There is perhaps no one else to blame for empowering the government to act unconstitutionally except past decisions of the apex court. Had the government any fear of the legal repercussions, they would not have risked such a move.

A useful tool or a major obstacle?

It may seem unbelievable but merely a week ago, the government was relying on this very Constitution as a defence mechanism to keep a hold onto power. The much-touted Article 63-A — which makes it illegal to vote against the party stance and punishes defecting parliamentarians with the potential loss of their seat — was being heralded as a scare tactic by the government to threaten dissenting lawmakers into voting along party lines.

It is rather poetic, therefore, that the same Constitution that was being looked upon as a means of keeping the government in power was so flippantly disregarded by the Speaker in his actions.

Outgoing law minister Fawad Chaudhry and interim Prime Minister Imran Khan both recently questioned why the Supreme Court was involving itself in parliamentary matters, when it was the same government that had sought the court's help in finding a way out of the no-confidence vote.

In fact, the President personally filed references seeking interpretation on the aforementioned Article 63-A.

The duality of this approach exposes the real value of the Pakistani Constitution — seen as a political chip to be played when the stakes are high and retracted when the tables are turned against the government.

No self-respecting nation should allow its premier law book to be reduced to a playing card to be used only as a political “surprise”.

Let bygones be bygones

The Supreme Court now has a duty to conduct an unbiased, transparent and speedy examination of the events of April 3. While the citizens of Pakistan have deferred any legal examination of the dissolution to the court, they do so with the hope that the court will have the courage to rule against the government if needed.

If Deputy Speaker Suri refuses to look at other Speakers’ valiant history of standing up for the law, the Supreme Court must reverse that precedent.

Some argue that the court should let “bygones be bygones” and not reignite a terribly dirty political battle, but instead let the public have their say in the scheduled elections this summer.

To suggest as much is to declare that even unjustifiable actions — illegal and unconstitutional actions — shouldn’t be reviewed by the court since it would be too “messy”. If keeping the court out of tough situations is the intention, then the best solution is to lock the gates of the court and never reopen them. That will prevent all “controversial” rulings.

Thankfully, other courts have set a precedent for the Pakistani apex court to follow. It was in 2019 when the British parliament was prorogued by Queen Elizabeth on the advice of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The House of Commons was stuck in a year-long deadlock and no impasse was evident. It was clear that parliament was not functioning properly, and thus Johnson’s decision actually enjoyed sky-high popularity at the time.

Truly, if ever there was the need for the doctrine of necessity, it was then — to dissolve a Parliament that had lost the confidence of the public and not achieved anything in three years. In fact, Johnson was well within his powers as Prime Minister to advise a dissolution.

Yet it was the UK's Supreme Court that stepped up and passed a landmark ruling that the premier had misled the Queen, and therefore the prorogation was illegal and void. The court opined that the prime motive for the dissolution was to allow Johnson some political benefit, and thus the President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, ordered Parliament to reopen.

Speaker Bercow obliged by calling a parliamentary session hours later. This case changed the landscape of the British political system, showing how courts must intervene to prevent illegal or dubious dissolutions of Parliament that serve no purpose other than to benefit a sitting government.

The court knew of the vast public support for the prorogation and was well aware of the controversy it would place itself in by ruling against the government. In fact, the court only passed its ruling on September 24, almost a month after Parliament was initially dissolved on August 28.

It would have been significantly easier to “let bygones be bygones”, and yet the court paid no attention to the easier route. Courts aren’t established to take the easy route — they’re built to take the legally correct one.

A chance to clean the slate

Qasim Suri's actions and the subsequent dismissal of the Assembly by the President present the perfect opportunity for the Supreme Court to rid itself of the tarnishing blemish that is the doctrine of necessity and prove itself as an independent defender of the law. No longer does it need to be considered by critics as a kangaroo court that simply rubber stamps decisions taken by the executive.

The final decision naturally lies with the court, and it is only the honourable Justices who are deemed qualified enough to pass a binding decision on this delicate matter.

While the average Pakistani citizen cannot profess to know the depth and details of the Constitution, almost every concerned citizen has one hope — that the court will have the courage to rule against the government if it is must.

Barring any discontent from pro-government supporters, and in spite of the anger the court may face, it is the duty of the court to act as the last arbiter of justice. In this case, upholding the Constitution is the doctrine of necessity.

This is not just the Constitution’s last stand — it may well be the last stand of democracy in Pakistan.