Parliament’s failure

Aug 4, 2017
CHAIRMAN of the Senate Raza Rabbani has warned in the past that the failure of elected representatives and political parties to give parliament its due would undermine democracy. Now, in a speech in Quetta on Wednesday, Mr Rabbani has warned that democracy itself is under attack from other institutions of the state. Mr Rabbani’s hard-hitting remarks may cause ripples of discontent in certain quarters, but it remains to be seen if the real targets of his speech — mainstream political leaders — will be moved by the chairman’s warning, which is both sensible and necessary. There is no simple democratic equation that will carry Pakistan towards its ultimate goal of a stable constitutional democracy in which civilian supremacy is reflected by a strong parliament with all other institutions operating strictly within the letter and spirit of the Constitution. What has long been clear is that it is the civilians themselves who need to raise the performance bar; encroachments in the civilian domain can only be repelled if the civilians act from a position of relative strength.
Unhappily, the record of parliament this term has been rather poor when it comes to both challenging encroachments in the civilian domain and strengthening the political order. Two examples can illustrate the problems. In extending the duration of military courts for civilian terrorism suspects via the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, parliament explicitly sanctioned a continuing distortion of the constitutional and legal order. All political parties fell meekly in line, the military winning virtually all the concessions it had demanded. And Mr Rabbani himself presided over the Senate session in which the amendment was approved, despite earlier suggesting he would not do so in protest. The great travesty of the 23rd Amendment is that it came more than two years after the 21st Amendment, which established military courts for civilian suspects for the first time. In two years, parliament did nothing to take up judicial reforms. Blame for that particular failure must lie solely with parliament itself.
The recent ouster of Nawaz Sharif on narrow judicial grounds may be a lamentable decision, but there too a failure of parliament can be identified, one that has spanned two parliaments. Mr Sharif’s case went to the Supreme Court for a decision because the existing accountability framework has virtually no credibility. With civilian institutions and regulators gutted and parliament having failed to overhaul an effective accountability set-up despite promises by the last PPP government and the current PML-N government, there ought to be little surprise that large sections of the public view politicians and politics with such disdain. If civilian supremacy is ever to be established, the civilians will need to gain in credibility with the public. A genuine accountability machine that steps up the fight against corruption could be a good starting point. Doing nothing is no longer a democratic option.
Dawn News, August 4, 2017

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