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Monday January 30, 2023

Where stands the National Assembly?

September 18, 2022

The National Assembly of Pakistan is the only popularly elected federal house where 272 seats are allocated to each province and the federal capital on the basis of population. Members of the National Assembly are elected every five years on these 272 seats across the country and represent the over 220 million citizens of Pakistan alongside MNAs on reserved seats for women and non-Muslim minorities.

The core functions of a legislative assembly in any democracy are to represent citizens, legislate and to oversee the elected government. Effective exercise of these powers has not only built functional, established and mature democracies, but fulfilling these responsibilities is also crucial in young democracies where conduct of assemblies helps establish democratic norms alongside instituting effective democratic governance.

Like other global democracies, these functions are elaborately laid down in our constitution. From qualifications on who can contest election to assembly tenure and from procedure of introducing and passing laws to details on the most crucial power of the assembly on scrutinizing and passing the federal budget, a long chapter on parliament in our constitution covers it all.

How does the legislative assembly exercise these constitutional responsibilities? PILDAT has been analyzing this question periodically by looking at the assembly’s performance in law-making, assembly debates and questions raised, oversight of government by committees and other key performance indicators.

While PILDAT looks at a whole host of performance indicators, let us discuss just a few basic ones. For instance, how consistently are assembly sessions held in a year? Even though we have completed five-year tenures of three successive national assemblies since 2002 and the current and 15th National Assembly has completed four years out of its five-year tenure, there is no set calendar of assembly sessions which is a standard practice of parliamentary systems.

In the British House of Commons, for instance, there is a set parliamentary calendar that is followed year after year with pre-determined recess periods when the House is not in session. That way, the general public is always aware when the Commons or Lords would and wouldn’t be in session during a year.

Similarly, the Indian Lok Sabha has three pre-determined annual sessions – Budget, Monsoon and Winter – and its recess period is also pre-set. In the case of our National Assembly, when a session starts and ends remains a public mystery and at the discretion of a sitting government. Even though now there is a practice of announcing a provisional calendar of sessions at the start of each parliamentary year, it is seldom followed.

Our constitution has set a minimum requirement of 130 days for which the assembly must be in session. However, there is a built-in provision also that in counting required yearly working days, up to two (2) days of adjournment between assembly sittings and joint sitting of parliament can be included in the count of 130 minimum working days.

Instead of convening sittings of the assembly for exactly 130 days or more during a year, successive assemblies have used this provision cleverly and almost as a loophole. The current assembly, for instance, has only met for 87 days in the just-concluded fourth parliamentary year in August. The average days of sittings of our successive National Assembly are far fewer than other legislatures. The UK parliament meets for an average of 150 days a year, the Indian parliament for 120 days a year and the US Congress for upwards of 100 days annually. Instead of focusing on increasing working days each year, it appears that our National Assembly is convened by successive governments only to meet the minimum constitutional requirement of sittings.

When a sitting takes place, what is its usual duration? Just three hours or under. This average has been almost consistently maintained by successive assemblies since 2002. Sittings in the UK House of Commons last eight hours a day on average and sittings in the Indian Lok Sabha are of six hours on average.

Another strange phenomenon in our National Assembly is that sittings are often adjourned without completing the set agenda for the day. Just during the fourth parliamentary year, 59 per cent agenda items on orders of the day could not be disposed of. In at least PILDAT’s research, most other parliaments find it strange that a sitting could be adjourned without completing the agenda of the day.

We have a constitutional provision by which at least one-fourth of the total membership of the Assembly has to be present during a sitting of the Assembly or the sitting has to be suspended or adjourned due to lack of quorum. This provision became the reason for adjourning 23 out of 88 or nearly 27 per cent sittings during the fourth year even though over 60 per cent MNAs were marked as present in assembly sittings. This points out issues in the attendance mechanism of the assembly where MNAs do not remain present in a sitting after recording attendance. Requirement of quorum is not a common practice in established democracies where sessions continue even if lone legislator is presenting a legislative business as members can watch proceedings from their individual offices or are engaged in committee meetings and join proceedings when required to vote.

Successive prime ministers too have not treated the National Assembly more than an electorate for the office of PM. As prime minister and as MNA, Mr Imran Khan attended only 34 or 11 per cent sittings of the current assembly so far. Before him, Mr Nawaz Sharif attended only 52 or 14 per cent sittings in the similar period 14th National Assembly. Since taking oath in April to the end of the fourth parliamentary year, the current PM has attended only eight out of 43 or 19 per cent sittings of the assembly.

Successive premiers’ disregard for the national Assembly can also be gauged by the fact that they rarely announced major policy decisions on the floor of the House. On the major challenges facing the country in economy and public governance, there is little role played by the National Assembly in policy advice, review and oversight. It is also not surprising that the National Assembly is not utilized for resolving political crises despite representing major parties while major conflicts spill out on the streets or are negotiated by non-democratic forces.

Even though democratic decision-making is the forte of elected governments, the National Assembly’s role is critical in democratic governance as elected representatives speak for citizens’ concerns and issues, scrutinize and pass necessary laws and are the only democratic forum to hold an elected government to account by overseeing government’s activities.

Beyond just working days, hours and attendance, each performance indicator of the National Assembly shows that a lot more effort is required for our National Assembly to fully and effectively exercise its constitutionally envisioned central role in democratic governance.

The writer is an analystworking in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.

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