Strange ways of our MPs

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A REPORT recently released by Fafen (Free and Fair Election Network), an umbrella organisation of 30 civil society groups working to foster democratic accountability in Pakistan, should provide us some food for thought on the workings of our democracy.

Since Dec 2008, Fafen has been monitoring the proceedings of the National Assembly by deploying trained observers there. Its latest report focuses on the 16th session of the National Assembly (Oct 5-16, 2009).

Its observations clearly confirm what we have long suspected. Our MPs are not playing effectively the role of custodians of democracy that is expected of them. They do not seem to even recognise the significance of this role.

After having lived through decades of authoritarian rule by military strongmen who spoke of tearing up constitutions like scraps of paper, the nation would want our parliamentarians to do better at upholding the spirit and form of democracy.

Even if the demands of principled politics mean nothing to them, they must be astute enough to understand that their own personal interest lies in preserving democracy, as their social and economic status as well as their political clout is dependent on their membership of the elected lawmaking bodies. Or is it that having become used to being co-opted by military dictators they feel democracy is dispensable?

Be that as it may, the people find it difficult to swallow the disappointment they feel at their lawmakers` performance. Given the quantum of work done by the MNAs as recorded by Fafen — the 10 daily sittings cumulatively enacted 34 hours and 25 minutes of parliamentary business — one gets the impression that there is not much for the legislators to do. The attendance record also betrays a similar indifference that is not justified. The speaker was not present during seven of the 10 sittings while 31 members were absent as they had applied for leave. We are not told how many sittings were attended by the prime minister himself. Most disturbing was the observation “Many members who were technically `present` for sittings actually left the house chamber to conduct other business.”

Such apathy would have been understandable under a military regime when parliament is no more than a rubberstamp body to showcase the pseudo-democracy dictators flaunt to win respectability internationally. Legislators did not take their work seriously as decisions were taken elsewhere. Do they still feel the same way? Hence their under-performance.

And absenteeism is not the only problem. Their failure to use effectively question hour to bring accountability and transparency in the governance process has been pronounced. By questioning the government shrewdly parliamentarians can keep it on its toes and promote accountability.

On the eight days when a question hour was held (Tuesday is an `unquestionable` day) 380 questions were asked — 169 by women, the holders of the contemptuously termed khairati seats.

Had these women who constitute 22 per cent of the members not undertaken to ask 44 per cent of the questions, the government would have had less to worry about. As it is in six of the eight question hours the concerned minister never bothered to show up and a large number of questions were not answered.

This attitude is also reflected in newspaper reports. The usual observation is that barring a few `incorrigible` questioners others do not put up questions for written answers or actively participate in question hour.

Parliament`s performance in lawmaking, its primary function, has traditionally been the poorest. According to Fafen`s report, of the 46 bills listed as the order of the day only four were adopted, three rejected and 39 referred to standing committees. That is not unusual. The 12th Assembly passed only 38 laws in its five-year tenure out of the 222 bills introduced. Undemocratic governments prefer to rule by ordinances since it saves them the trouble of having to defend a bill that is debated in the house.

Even elected rulers and lawmakers seem to have become used to the convenience of government by ordinances. A random search on the Internet brought up 11 ordinances that have been promulgated in Pakistan in 2009 alone. Some of them are of great importance but didn`t go through the normal lawmaking process, such as the Nizam-i-Adl Ordinance, Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance and the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance.

This is the story of only one hat the parliamentarians wear — that of lawmakers. They wear a second hat too — as representatives of their constituents. It is their responsibility to keep in touch with voters, look into their problems and act as a conduit of their opinion to the powers that be. One doesn`t need a survey to reveal the disconnect between the MNAs and their voters. A common complaint of the public is that their representatives only show up when elections are round the corner.

Transparency is the need of the hour. Fafen asks for Assembly sessions to be opened to citizen observers by a standardised procedure of accreditation. This is normal practice in democratic societies to create public interest in elected bodies. The website of the British parliament carries this notice “UK residents and overseas visitors may watch debates for free on current issues or proposed new laws in both houses by visiting the public galleries.”

Obviously we are taking our democracy for granted. Why? Is it because the masses have no stake in it as they are not the real beneficiaries? Cyril Almeida has asked if our politicians can ever make democracy work. Kamran Shafi believes they can, provided our democracy gets the time it takes to grow and flower and prosper, to which endeavour he exhorts all to say “No” to another army take-over.

Absolutely correct. But should not the parliamentarians lend a helping hand in this endeavour by playing the role they are paid for more effectively? If you follow the working of the legislatures and read the fine print, you will find we still have a long way to go.