August 10; As the President of Pakistan, upon the advice of the Prime Minister, dissolved the 15th National Assembly 3 days before the completion of its 5-year term, it has not just pushed the timing of General Election by additional 30 days, dark clouds have also gathered on the horizon for timely election to the next National Assembly.
The conclusion of the 15th National Assembly has left democracy almost as vulnerable in Pakistan as it was when it was elected on July 25, 2018. The National Assembly and our elected representatives have allowed themselves to be used to weaken instead of strengthening democracy in the 5-year tenure.
The 15th National Assembly passed a total of 279 pieces of legislation in 5 years with the latest flurry of hasty legislation undermining basic tenets of constitutional scheme of democracy and human rights. Legislative activity in the 15th National Assembly witnessed an increase of 45% over the 192 laws passed during the 14th National Assembly.
Figure 1: Comparison of Average Number of Bills Passed per year
The 15th National Assembly witnessed two governments: the first from August 18, 2018 to April 10, 2022 with the PTI Chairman Mr. Imran Khan as PM, while the second government was formed by a coalition of the PDM and the PPPP with Mr. Shehbaz Sharif as PM which lasted from April 11, 2022 to August 09, 2023.
Figure 2: Comparison of Average Number of Ordinances laid per year
The PTI government relied heavily on ordinances for the purpose of legislation. Out of 75 ordinances laid in the National Assembly in 5 years, only 3 were promulgated by the coalition government while 72 were promulgated by the PTI government. Compared to the term of the 14th National Assembly when only 38 ordinances were promulgated, a 97% increase was witnessed in the number of ordinances passed by the 15th National Assembly.
The 15th National Assembly has passed the largest number of laws compared to the previous three Assemblies starting from 2002. Just during the last three weeks of the 15th National Assembly, 73 bills were passed. Out of these 73 bills, 36 (49%) bills were not referred to concerned committees and rushed through the plenary without a meaningful debate. A newspaper commented that “… these laws were drafted in secrecy and passed in haste.”
While previous Assemblies had also been pushed by successive governments to rush legislation sometimes to fulfil international obligations, a large number of the laws passed by the 15th National Assembly related to Pakistan’s foreign obligations. These included laws that had been introduced and passed in haste to fulfil obligations relating to the IMF and the FATF among others. Such laws were drafted with delay and pushed through for passage without due time and procedure for scrutiny and consideration in most cases.
In its 5-year term, the 15th National Assembly was only convened for 452 sittings or average 90 sittings per year. The previous (14th) National Assembly was convened for 495 sittings or on average 99 sittings per year which in itself is not a great performance but it still shows a decrease of 9% in sittings.
Figure 3: Comparison of Average Number of Hours Worked per year
The National Assembly only consumed a total of 1245working hours in 5 years or on average 249 working hours per year which show a 21% decrease in productivity from the previous Assembly which spent 315 working hours per year on average. It must be noted that average cost to taxpayers of each working hour in 5 years comes to PKR. 24.23 million per hour.
The 15th National Assembly has also had the unique experience of the first-ever successful passage of Vote of No-Confidence (VoNC) in Pakistan’s parliamentary history against a Prime Minister. Even though two previous Prime Ministers had faced votes of no confidence against them but those had remained unsuccessful. Another first was the rejection of the no-confidence motion using Article 5 of the Constitution and Prime Minister’s advice to the President to dissolve the 15th National Assembly before the Supreme Court set it aside as being contrary to the Constitution and of no legal effect.
The 15th National Assembly also enjoyed a dubious distinction where the outgoing Prime Minister claimed that he required and used the help of the country’s intelligence agencies to bring his own coalition MNAs to the House to pass legislation and even Federal Budgets.
While previous Assemblies also witnessed bitter treasury-opposition relationship, this was the first time that the leading opposition party decided to quit their elected representation from the Assembly altogether after the defeat of VoNC akin to throwing toys out of the pram. This decision that violated the very basis of democratic representation was understood to be a colossal mistake by most but was realised too late by the PTI as it robbed the National Assembly of the opposition and itself of the opportunity to be an important player in making critical future appointments such as the chair of the NAB and a neutral caretaker Prime Minister.
Earlier in the 3 years and 8 months of the PTI-led reign, the Federal Government ensured there was little use for the opposition in the National Assembly. As Prime Minister, Mr. Imran Khan chose not to rise above his dislike for leading opposition figures and instead resorted to severely restricting the efficiency and effectiveness of the Assembly. His liberal use of choice words for the opposition leaders and obdurate attitude towards engagement not only hamstrung consensus-based legislation on national and international issues, it also compromised required and unified national positioning in the face of serious regional and security crises facing Pakistan. As inconceivable as it appeared at the time, he even opted to avoid fulfilling binding constitutional and legal obligations and did not hold formal consultation on statutory appointments such as membership of the ECP and promulgated an ordinance just to avoid consultation on appointment of NAB chairperson.
Before it finally found an opportunity to overthrow the PTI government, the joint opposition in the National Assembly too limited itself largely to agitation, sloganeering, walkouts, tearing up Assembly documents and shouting at Ministers, Prime Minister and even the President. Basic reform such as constituting shadow cabinets in individual parties or the joint opposition in the National Assembly was not carried out and the Opposition remained mostly unprepared to take on the government on substantial policy and legislative issues.
However, it can be argued that the tone set during the initial period of the 15th National Assembly severely undermined parliamentary decorum and democracy. From no greetings between Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition to skipping critical in-camera briefings in the face of national crises, the shared bitterness did not just strain working environment of the National Assembly, it seriously affected affairs of the State and spilled to polluting the overall national political climate leading to unprecedented political polarisation. In the final analysis, the loss is not just that of one popular political leader and party but that of all political parties, the people, their unhindered freedom of choice to elect, continuity of the political process and long-term stability of the country possible only through democratic stability.
The 15th National Assembly did not work towards any institutional reform in its 5-year tenure. The most critically-required reform was in the parliamentary budget process as the Assembly’s responsibility to pass or reject government’s financial proposals and annual budget remains its most important power. The Assembly merely goes through the motions of budget scrutiny and passage and has long required serious reform in utilising its role to propose and effectively scrutinise annual budgets. During 5 years of 15th National Assembly only 15 sittings were held on average yearly to discuss the most-important annual federal budgets. Only 173 members participated on average annually in budget sessions. Similarly, the National Assembly only spent 70 hours on average yearly in budget sessions.
Figure 4: Comparison of Average Budget per sitting (in Millions)
The 15th National Assembly was the first one to not allow the budget approved by the Assembly to be changed through a supplementary budget under Article 84 of the Constitution. Although the Supreme Court had suggested that the National Assembly should adopt that course and approve supplementary budget for the Election Commission to hold election for two Provincial Assemblies of Punjab and KP but the National Assembly repeatedly defied Supreme Court ‘advice’. Although the government may have refused to invoke Article 84 for its own political reasons, it is hoped that Article 84, which runs counter to the democratic spirit, will eventually be amended when the new Assembly is in place. Article 84, in its present form, gives unlimited power to the Executive to modify the budget approved by the National Assembly.
Despite repeated promises, Prime Minister’s Weekly Question Hour was not started during nearly four years of Mr. Imran Khan’s Prime Ministership or even afterwards. The Assembly’s Standing Committees, the key institutions for carrying out effective oversight, have largely remained sluggish when not outright dormant. The Assembly members and committees failed to even question and oversee the State’s key policy decisions and practices on critical crises that developed during the past 5 years with huge impact for Pakistan’s stability and security. These included, for instance, Pakistan’s engagement with the outlawed TTP, crisis with India over the change of status of Indian Occupied Kashmir and the so called ‘cypher issue’ among other regional and international concerns. Its combined wisdom neither offered nor supported effective policy choices in rebuilding Pakistan’s economy as Pakistan suffered from this leading problem. Instead of thwarting overtures undermining democracy and democratic stability, it supported legislative steps and practices that hindered holding of timely and free and fair general election. The Assembly failed also in finding workable solution to issues of inter-institutional relations whose existence threatens the very functioning of democratic governance as the Constitution envisages.
Among 15 legislatures of Pakistan, this National Assembly is the 4th one to be able to complete its term. Earlier Assemblies which completed their 5-years term were elected in 2002, 2008 and 2013.
The performance statistics of the 15th National Assembly have not been much different from the previous Assembly data. Thin attendance, frequent lack of quorum, little to no debate on legislation and mostly irrelevant speeches on the most important policy document — the annual budget — are just a few examples of the lack of seriousness in our legislatures.
Figure 5: Comparison of Percentage Attendance of Prime Ministers
The biggest show of confidence in the National Assembly comes from its own membership in terms of their attendance. Prime Minister, as the Leader of the House, sets that trend. But just 11% attendance of Prime Minister Mr. Imran Khan and only 17% attendance of Assembly sittings by Prime Minister Mr. Shehbaz Sharif reflects them voting with their feet in the Assembly. It appears that successive Prime Ministers have attached limited importance to the very House that elects them. As Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif did not attend more than 14% sittings of the National Assembly while Mr. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi attended 19% sittings though these dwarf in comparison to the 76% (calculated on the basis of 3 years and 3 months) attendance of Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. Former Prime Minister Mr. Imran Khan, therefore, earned the dubious distinction of having the least attendance in the National Assembly over the past 20 years which saw 9 Prime Ministers during this period.
Average attendance of MNAs in 5 years stands at 61% though it stood at 67% before the PTI decision to quit the National Assembly. Despite this high level of attendance documented in the National Assembly records, it was frequently found lacking quorum (25% attendance).
As the only representative national legislature based on the country’s population, the performance of the National Assembly leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it’s working creates a serious crisis of legitimacy of representative democracy in Pakistan. While we lament that no Prime Minister has been able to complete the full five-year term in our national history, it is important to question, and to reform, what successive National Assemblies do and must accomplish in order to ensure an effective, functioning and stable democratic Pakistan.
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