The myth of sovereignty

December 23,2015

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Chairman of Senate Raza Rabbani recently said that: “parliament is sovereign”. Some other parliamentarians have sung the same song as well. I wish that were true.

The constitution of 1973 defines Pakistan as a ‘republic’ and provides a parliamentary democracy like the one in Great Britain. Over years our leaders and parliamentarians have made compromises and turned the republic into an oligarchy and democracy for people into a government for the elite. The constitution has been turned on its head.

The process of decline started from the Independence Act 1947, when after the death of Quaid-e-Azam, the then members of parliament perpetuated themselves for seven years because of a provision in the said law that said that the constituent assembly would also operate as the National Assembly and would continue to be so till the constitution as enforced. The election of the members was to be held thereafter.

Instead of framing the constitution as soon as was possible, the process was dragged on for years – not for national purposes but for the personal gain of remaining in power and strengthening constituencies. Parliament had become so vulnerable that the then governor general Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the assembly by an executive order. The parliamentarians went home; parliament did not show its supremacy.

Through a very unpopular and non-democratic process a new constituent assembly was elected on an indirect basis. The 1956 constitution – credited to Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, a bureaucrat-cum-politician – was enforced.

As the parliamentary form of government provides for the selection of the prime minister and his accountability through a vote of no-confidence, the newly elected members of the constituency used this majoritarian rule to their advantage. Groups in parliament lobbied to vote in a prime minister and manoeuvre his ouster, and one by one they fell like dominoes. In a short span of two years six prime ministers took oath, some of them not for more than a month or a few weeks. The provision of the constitution that ensured good government was thoroughly abused.

As was obvious to the common citizen, the 1956 constitution failed to deliver which led to the imposition of the first martial law in Pakistan in 1958 due to bad governance. Parliamentarians shared responsibility for this national disaster.

I am omitting Ayub’s presidential constitution of 1962 which made a presidential form of government. The failure of the 1962 constitution was due to different reasons – more about politics than good governance.

After Ayub resigned as president, Pakistan went through a tortuous history including the breakup of Pakistan. However, in a sombre atmosphere and under the leadership of Z A Bhutto a unanimously agreed constitution of 1973 was enforced. I participated in the completion of the draft constitution as constitutional advisor nominated by the united opposition.

Whereas the constitution did provide a parliamentary form of government, on Bhutto’s insistence it contained an unprecedented provision – making a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister almost impossible. Parliament’s right to hold the prime minister accountable and sending him home was taken away. Parliamentarians had to concede this provision in spite of objections, since lifting of the martial law was conditional on the constitution being framed. This was the first case of political ‘muk muka’ (compromise).

It set the course for the prime minister to be unaccountable to parliament. This novel clause had a sunset provision and finally came to an end. In the meantime, accountability moved from parliament to the streets which brought yet another disaster. Martial law was imposed in 1977, and a national leader was hanged after a judicial judgement. Nationally and internationally, the process was referred to as judicial murder.

A pliable parliament elected on a non-party basis was brought in by the then martial law administrator Gen Ziaul Haq. This made the president more powerful than the prime minister. Parliament lost all semblance of leadership which now vested in the executive.

Adult franchise and political parties constitute the building blocks of any democracy. After the death of Gen Ziaul Haq political parties came to life. The leaders of the political parties, who understood how important it is to be the heads/leaders of the party proceeded to personalise the same. In fact most of them became dynastic in nature.

Let us have a quick look. You will meet these god-like leaders in every party. In the PPP Z A Bhutto, then Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari and soon Bilawal Zardari; National Awami Party, as it was then known – Wali Khan now Asfandyar Wali; the MQM has Altaf Hussain for life; the JUI-F, Mufti Mehmood and now Maulana Fazlur Rehman; the patriarch Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi leader of the united Muslim League and now Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q.

In political parties, the party leader maintains his position; s/he is elected as leader not through secret votes but by a show of hands. When a particular party gets majority in the National Assembly, its leader takes office of prime minister as well. The balance between the leader of a political party and the prime minister shifts the power base in favour of the leader.

The prime minister, who is also the party leader, makes all efforts to get the majority. The idea of fair and free elections was lost and the electoral system became polluted. The process of the pollution started from rigging to engineering, which included the state machinery. The electoral system lost its credibility and parliament’s legitimacy became dubious.

Parliament woke up to the situation and constituted a Review Committee in April 2009 consisting of 26 members representing all the political parties in the two Houses. However the bosses of the political parties appeared to be much cleverer. The Review Committee added a clause in Article 63A of the constitution that even when voting on any amendment to the constitution, the members must vote according to the dictates of the party leader, violation of which entailed disqualification as a member. This clause took away the freedom of the parliamentarians.

I have narrated this story of the loss of credibility and sovereignty of parliament in the spirit of reform. Although this is an unpopular terrain, yet the truth must be disclosed.

The writer is a member of the Senate.



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