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February 21, 2018

Towards balance


February 21, 2018

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s speech to the National Assembly on Monday, asserting the institutional right of parliament to shape and execute policy, represents something of a shift for the PML-N. Till now the party had remained largely silent, leaving it to Nawaz Sharif to rail against what the party sees as judicial overreach. The government too has watched as the judiciary has been seen to have increasingly involved itself in legislative matters but now, with the next general elections fast approaching, it is taking a different tack. As a political strategy, the PML-N may feel it is necessary because the government has found itself increasingly hamstrung. According to PM Abbasi, government officials have been wary of taking any initiative as they are worried they will be hauled up before the courts and subjected to degrading remarks. If we go back in time a little, we will remember that this was what the PPP would say as well when criticising judicial overreach during its own tenure from 2008-13. Now this seems to have become a problem for the PML-N – at a time when it wants to present a positive agenda of development to present to the voters. But it can be argued that the prime minister’s speech was also about more than the parochial interests of his party; Abbasi is pointing to something that has been a consistent matter of debate, particularly in the past 3-4 years.

The careful and nuanced response in parliament of Leader of the Opposition Khursheed Shah shows the PPP might decide to join in with the government on this issue. While generally in favour of a debate on encroachment of parliamentary duties, Shah did criticise the PML-N for not doing anything about the issue while it was in the opposition and said it was acting out of party interest. The PTI, which has been so subsumed by its anti-government agenda that it has not had anything to say about legislative supremacy – something the party may even see as a hurdle at times – also accused the government of acting in self-interest. That may be true but one could argue that essentially that is how politics works and party interests – if progressive – may not always be at variance with what is in everyone’s interests. That is the point that may perhaps not be lost entirely on the PPP.

The current government might say that it has only a couple of months left in its tenure so more relevant is what comes after the elections, and in that scenario the rights of parliament should be more than just party interests. An institutional balance of power depends on each institution jealously guarding its authority, regardless of partisan affiliation and ideology. This goes for the judiciary as much for parliament and any other institution. The hope then is that the clearly-defined powers of each institution as laid down in the constitution are respected by all.

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