The Parliament that murdered democracy

There can be no doubt about the fact that parliamentary democracy in Pakistan will take years to recover from the devastation inflicted upon it in the last five years.
Published August 10, 2023

Over the last few years, Pakistan’s parliamentarians, individuals who have sworn to protect and uphold the Constitution, have betrayed both the letter and spirit of constitutional democracy in the country. This betrayal has come on the back of years of rhetoric about the rule of law, democracy, and constitutional norms. And the culminating act of betrayal has unfolded over the past few weeks, where Parliament, the very institution that politicians draw their strength from, has been made a mockery of.

But the betrayal of Parliament was simply not enough in the unfolding saga. Democracy, which was already on its deathbed, has also been murdered by these ruling elites, who colluded with undemocratic forces from within and outside to conduct this heinous act.

Hollowing out the foundation of democracy

The latest act of this tragedy began unfolding soon after the 15th National Assembly of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was sworn in on August 13, 2018. Imran Khan’s PTI had emerged as the largest party in Parliament after a contentious election. Political parties opposed to the PTI alleged that the election was rigged while the European Union said that there was a “lack of equality of opportunity” ahead of the elections and “systematic attempts to undermine the ruling party” had been made prior to election day.

This antagonism was on full display in the halls of Parliament as well, where opposition lawmakers were chanting slogans against the newly elected prime minister as he made his first speech as Leader of the House.

This early confrontation began a slow and steady process through which Parliament became dysfunctional and was weakened.

As Leader of the House, Imran Khan attended parliamentary sessions only 11 per cent of the time. This was a decline from Nawaz Sharif, who as prime minister from 2013-17 attended Parliament only 14pc of the time, which in and of itself was a low bar.

When Parliament functioned, questions were raised about the manner in which it was conducting its business. For example, when it met to pass legislation focused on extending the army chief’s tenure, the government did not “allow debate on the bills in committee or on the parliamentary floor”.

This rushed vote came on the back of a rather rare show of consensus across the aisle, which itself raised questions about the way in which everyone in Parliament came together to “unconditionally and hastily” pass the law “without even a perfunctory debate, let alone dissent”. The only thing that could bring politicians together, it seemed, was not a desire to improve the lives of ordinary citizens but to provide legal cover for an extension in the army chief’s tenure.

Then came the SBP Amendment Bill, which granted increased autonomy to Pakistan’s central bank. When this legislation was first debated in the public discourse, this author supported efforts to provide increased autonomy to the central bank.

But once again, Parliament failed to do its duty by not having an open, transparent debate on why this was a necessary reform. Instead, the entire process was short-circuited and the legislation was passed in a rushed vote, which only undermined those who wanted the legislature to debate, own, and then push through such laws.

The vote to pass this legislation was “not included in the agenda” on the eve of the vote, and was only “added to the agenda in the morning”. Senator Sherry Rehman’s tweets about the agenda showed that all was not well in the Senate, but this did not slow down anyone. In fact, the legislation was not even discussed in the Senate’s Finance Committee prior to its passage. The voting pattern showed that the opposition had colluded with the ruling party in this rushed vote as over a dozen senators “were absent, majority of them belonging to the opposition”.

The rushed votes also showcased the inability of Imran’s government to muster together votes on contentious issues. With parliament dysfunctional, the PTI government began to rely on ordinances to get its agenda through, pushing a total of 74 ordinances in the first four years of the 15th National Assembly — according to the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), the PTI government pushed “54pc more ordinances than the PML-N government”.

This included contentious ordinances such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, which was later struck down by the Islamabad High Court. In its order, the court said that the “criminalisation of defamation, protection of individual reputations through arrest and imprisonment and the resultant chilling effect violates the letter of the Constitution”.

The final act of undermining Parliament was the way in which individuals within the institution were targeted. An example is the way in which the Speaker of the House conducted himself with regards to the rights of his own colleagues — his refusal to issue production orders to bring elected members of Parliament like Ali Wazir to attend ongoing sessions provided the evidence to undemocratic forces that Parliament was not even willing to stand by its own, even when the law permitted them to do so.

Another, perhaps a more blatant example, revolves around how an attempt was made to spy on senators gearing up to vote in the upper House of Parliament. Senator Musadiq Malik and Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar “allegedly discovered spy cameras installed near and inside the polling booth” that had been setup for the Senate chairman elections in March 2021. While there was a brief uproar related to this development — and other allegations were made about how parliamentarians were being coerced and intimidated to vote a certain way — not much was done.

Several months later, the spying attempts would take on an even more sinister approach, leaving Shehbaz Sharif — who by now occupied the Prime Minister House — red-faced after purported audio recordings of his conversations were leaked on social media. This time too, there was no real attempt to investigate who was behind the leaks while those who carried out these violations against the sanctity of Parliament remain unpunished.

It was only after he was removed from office that Imran Khan informed the public about what was actually going on in Parliament, saying that his party “could only keep our majority intact by telling the army, the ISI, look, you must make sure that they come, my members appear for voting” in Parliament.

Murder in broad daylight

But democracy was not murdered on Imran’s watch. The tragic irony here is that the murder of democracy occurred under the leadership of the PML-N and the PPP — the two leading parties that had given birth to the ‘charter of democracy’ many years ago.

The scheming began soon after Imran was ousted and decided to have his lawmakers resign en masse from the National Assembly — a tragic mistake. With no opposition to speak of, the new ruling coalition led by the PML-N and PPP decided this was the perfect moment for them to run roughshod over parliamentary and democratic norms.

The process began with the amendment to election laws, where the government took away “the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs)”. In addition, the government amended NAB laws, which it argued was “used for suppressing the voice of opponent politicians”.

Without the largest political party in the country present in Parliament, the rapid passage of such amendments in the assembly raised some questions about democratic norms in the country. Rather than prepare the country for elections and ensure democratic continuity, the ruling coalition was more interested in bending the rules to favour its leadership and those aligned with its agenda.

Things reached a fever pitch towards the end of the Parliament’s tenure, with the government passing legislation at such speed that even the National Assembly’s website could not keep up. In a single sitting, Parliament passed passed 28 private member’s bills without a quorum, with the Speaker of the House Raja Pervez Ashraf permitting lawmakers to move motions for the passage of the bills, even when legislators moving these motions were not present in the parliament!

Amendments to the Army Act were made in a manner that sums up how Parliament has been made a mockery of: the legislation was passed during a rushed vote in the Senate, and there is no accurate count of how many senators voted for the legislation. PTI senators also helped pass the legislation, and while the PTI has announced a probe, nothing has come out of that investigation to date. Following its approval in the Senate, the legislation was subsequently passed in the largely empty lower House of Parliament.

The push to pass the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 led to some backlash, forcing the government to backtrack in the Senate after it was “tabled in the lower House of Parliament”, where it was “approved despite protests from the opposition benches”.

But these protests have been too few and far in between and the government has managed to railroad over 100 pieces of legislation in the last few weeks of its tenure. These included everything from amendments to the Army Act and the blasphemy law, legislation focused on DHA Islamabad, and almost two dozen private university bills.

Encouraging lawmakers to pass a bill that would set up a new authority to counter money laundering and terror financing, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said that the legislation “should be cleared on Sunday because it will cause us harm internationally by delaying it”. Someone in the Senate should have asked the finance minister what exactly this harm would be, given that his government had failed to pass the legislation despite being in power for over a year.

A dark legacy awaits this Parliament

When historians fully document all that has happened to Pakistan’s democracy in the last few years, they will most definitely focus on the role of the military establishment, the conditions that led to Imran’s victory and subsequent ouster, and the failures of the superior judiciary.

But in order to fully document the tragic demise of Pakistan’s flawed and floundering democracy, historians will also have to focus on the role of parliamentarians in bringing irreparable harm to itself and by extension, democracy. Pakistan’s history is riddled with undemocratic forces trying their level best to undermine democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law. But perhaps never before in its short and bleak history has the country’s Parliament capitulated in a way that we have seen in the last few months.

With elections all but delayed, the outgoing 15th National Assembly of Pakistan will be remembered as being responsible for voluntarily opening the door for unconstitutional rule in Pakistan. While some may argue that a bit of a delay is not that bad, given Pakistan’s history of overt military rule, these individuals are mistaken about where things are headed in Pakistan.

Undemocratic forces have developed a new playbook since the democratic transition began in 2008, first finding ways to weaken democratic governments through superior courts, and subsequently relying on growing antagonism within Parliament. This approach has allowed for a dramatic expansion of the power wielded by the establishment, while at the same time restricting the powers of other constitutional authorities such as the apex court, which found itself powerless to force timely provincial elections despite its orders.

The real focus, however, must be on the role of the PDM coalition. Blinded by its hatred of Imran Khan, the ruling coalition has voluntarily destroyed the little power Parliament had. It has played an active role in disenfranchising the people of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and paved the way for a delay in elections beyond the constitutional limit.

That the party which claims to have given the Constitution to Pakistan has paired with the party that until recently talked about vote ko izzat do to undermine constitutional democratic rule in Pakistan can never be forgotten. In their twilight years, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari have both destroyed their legacy and their parties’ reputation, perhaps beyond repair.

There can be no doubt about the fact that parliamentary democracy in Pakistan will take years to recover from the devastation inflicted upon it in the last five years. The impact of these developments will be all the more significant given the economic crisis at hand. Requiring major reforms, Pakistan needed a Parliament that could engage with the broader public on the hows and whys of reforms. Instead, those that derive strength from this institution have themselves decimated its role and stature.

What awaits the country remains to be seen, but perhaps the only salvation for members of the ruling coalition would come from a final decapitation of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, following which perhaps the next generation of political leaders can regain some of the honour lost.

Header illustration: Saad Arifi