The 15th National Assembly’s speed with regard to legislation made a mockery of the process and the norms
akistan’s 15th National Assembly recently completed its tenure. Former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif sought to take credit for saving the country from default on external payments. Meanwhile, the incarcerated former premier Imran Khan has claimed that his rule was exemplary. The fact remains that the 15th National Assembly will be remembered as the most controversial legislature in Pakistan’s history that made a joke of the solemn business of legislation leading to several setbacks to efforts for civilian supremacy in the country.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman, who came into power with the backing of the establishment and claimed to be on the same page with its leaders, also presided over a government that sponsored several controversial bills. The assembly passed a law to allow extension in the service of the army chief. This was when the PTI was at the helm. However, the opposition also supported the legislation and it was unanimously carried. On some other legislation, the PTI faced immense resistance from the joint opposition.
The PTI tried to gag the media by legislating and enforcing the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2022 as an ordinance, after it failed to receive a nod from the parliament. Journalist unions and rights groups declared it a black law and protested against it. However, the PTI-led hybrid government went ahead and notified the ordinance. It was then challenged before the Islamabad High Cout. Justice Athar Minallah, the then IHC chief justice, found it contradictory to constitutional provisions.
The PTI chairman further dented the National Assembly’s credibility with his solo flight decision-making and without taking the parliament into confidence.
This was the first National Assembly of Pakistan that witnessed a successful no-confidence motion against the prime minister.
Following the successful no-confidence motion, Shahbaz Sharif, known for swift administrative decisions and implementation, was elected as the prime minister. In order to please his coalition partners, he recruited an army of ministers and advisers. While he failed to exhibit his usual pace in other affairs, legislation in the National Assembly and the Senate matched his pace. After forming the government, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, which till this point had carried the flag of civilian supremacy and resisted the establishment’s interference in political affairs, became a facilitator of the establishment. During the PDM rule, the assembly lacked full strength and a real opposition. As many as 20 (PTI) dissidents, played the role of a tiny, mostly friendly, opposition.
By-elections held to the vacated seats failed to restore the National Assembly’s strength. It kept functioning with a depleted strength, raising serious questions about its constitutional role and function.
During its tenure, this assembly approved a total of 236 bills out of 349 introduced by its members. It approved 10 bills in the first parliamentary year and 30 in the second. It shifted gears in the third parliamentary year when it approved 60 bills. It did not stop there, passing 56 and 80 bills in the fourth and the fifth years, respectively. 14 bills introduced by private members were also approved.
The speedy legislation incurred severe criticism. Most members supported the process without even reading the proposed bills. In some instances, bills were not even circulated among the parliamentarians before a vote was called. Since the assembly was incomplete, those championing the parliamentary supremacy sought help from 14 joint sessions of the parliament that went on to approve 76 laws.
The assembly passed a remarkable 72 bills in its last session.
Some of the bills were introduced to please powers that be, like the bill to amend the Official Secrets Act to empower two intelligence agencies to arrest any person without a warrant. The National Assembly approved the bill; however, in the Senate, PPP’s Raza Rabbani opposed it and tore a copy of the bill. Some other senators also objected to a lack of proper debate on the bill. In the end, the draft was sent to a committee for further discussion.
The National Assembly also passed The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023, to increase the punishment for derogatory remarks against revered religious personalities — including the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), his family and companions — from imprisonment for three years to at least 10 years. The bill was passed in January with only 15 lawmakers present. A few weeks ago, the Senate passed a bill that has sparked a new debate in the country and risks escalating sectarian tensions. President Arif Alvi has not signed the bill. It is feared that the law, introduced as a private member’s bill, might lead to greater sectarian hostility, intolerance and violence.
For most of its term, the 15th National Assembly failed to provide strength to the governments or democracy. It was instead found mostly doing the bidding of the non-representative powers.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher