The missing prime minister

January 13, 2019

Soon after taking oath, Imran Khan made big promises about coming to the parliament regularly and attending the Wednesday ‘Question hour’, but he has so far failed to deliver

The missing prime minister

Would it be correct to say that in just about five months into his new government, Prime Minister Imran Khan is fast losing interest in the affairs of the National Assembly?

According to the data gathered by the National Assembly and Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN), Khan has appeared in six of the 32 (till date) sittings of the assembly, three each in the first two sessions. He has remained away completely from the next four sessions.

The assembly record shows that he has spoken on only one Point of Order, related to ‘peace building and conflict resolution’ and has voted for only one resolution titled ‘National Anthem should be played on the commencement of the NA’.

Looking back, Nawaz Sharif attended 10 percent of the NA sessions during his tenure as the prime minister and his successor Shahid Khaqan Abbasi 19 percent. In recent years, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made himself the most familiar prime minister in the assembly with 90 percent attendance.

Khan’s poor attendance so far contradicts his earlier statements against the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif in the previous assembly. He used to criticise Sharif for staying away from the assembly and how it affected the attendance of ministers and other ruling party leaders.

On November 1, 2018, opposition leader Khusheed Shah said, "It is sad that the PM is absent from the house even on important days and does not like to take the house - the right forum - into confidence on important issues and prefers to make speeches outside the house".

"There is a history of imbalance between the executive and the parliament in Pakistani democracy," says political scientist Dr. Mohammad Waseem. "Executive is accountable but it does not like to be answerable to a subordinate house like the National Assembly. Prime ministers do not feel obliged to answer questions and same is the case with ministers, thus affecting the parliament’s efficiency in terms of policy and lawmaking. That means the parliament is reduced to the third function of constituency work only."

He says that for the past few months the lawmaking process in the parliament has been stalled. "The input of standing committees is slow and there is no bargaining and understanding between the government and the opposition."

Clearly the debate on issues of national interest has moved from the floor of the assembly to primetime talk shows on TV, and "on the street, which is contrary to the spirit of the parliament". To him, this means a failure of the parliament -- "this makes democracy a formal but not substantive and participatory procedure."

As a member of the National Assembly, during 2013-2018, Imran Khan made it to only 24 of more than 500 sittings in the past assembly. He was amongst the worst performing parliamentarians with around five percent attendance in 56 sessions of the previous assembly.

Soon after taking oath in mid-August last year, Khan pledged to take the floor of the house to address questions every fortnight on the same pattern as the British parliament. In September last year, the government moved the house to make it mandatory for prime ministers to respond to questions on government affairs. The proposed rule was to introduce ‘Prime Minister’s Question Hour’ on the first Wednesday of each session for answering questions on matters relating to the overall substantive policy or the performance of the government.

"Leadership role is fundamental to democracy, particularly in a parliamentary form of government -- and it seriously affects the parliament’s performance if leaders do not become an example," says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency).

He says the presence of the PM is absolutely crucial, and ultimately affects the interest of ministers which trickles down to other members of the parliament, ultimately leading to less than 25 percent members in the house, "a situation also noticed in the house in the past".

"Unfortunately, such leaders think that the parliament’s task is to elect them. They do not want to become answerable and accountable to the members of the assembly," he says.

Mehboob adds that ministers are speaking on policy matters in TV talk shows. "How can one imagine that ministers announce polices and developments projects in talk shows rather than on the floor of the house." He suggests public awareness and education on this subject, where the public should be asking their elected representatives about their performance in respective assemblies. "Parliament’s effectiveness is vital and that is only possible with the continuous presence of the PM and his cabinet."

The missing prime minister