The ruling party’s non-serious attitude towards Parliament – the central pillar of democracy – has been a subject of concern right from the beginning.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif rarely attended proceedings of the lower house, and even more rarely of the upper house’s. At one point, the Senate had to pass a resolution, demanding that he attend its proceedings at least once a week.
That had no effect. Following in the footsteps of their leader, federal ministers too have routinely been absenting themselves from the house even when they are scheduled to respond to legislators’ queries, as seen in Thursday’s Senate session. On the agenda of the day were 31 questions pertaining to the interior ministry.
A PTI legislator had also wanted to know why the circular debt had reached an alarming figure of Rs 800 billion and loans acquired from commercial banks to settle the power sector’s arrears were in the vicinity of Rs 193 billion. But none of the ministers concerned thought it worth his while to come to the Senate to respond to such pressing questions. On separate days in the same session, two other ministers had behaved similarly.
No wonder, after five or six such incidents in a row, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani lost his patience. Throwing up his hands in frustration after what happened on Thursday, he said if this to be their behaviour “I will shut it [Senate] down. Some ministers are abroad, others have gone to Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere … This is Parliament, not a Rajwara [kingdom].”
On a more sober note, he asked the Leader of the House, Raja Zafarul Haq, to talk to the ministers and tell them that this is unacceptable as “such attitudes weaken the Parliament and jolt the system.” Paradoxically enough, there is a consistent chatter in the ruling circles about democracy being in danger, yet those deriving legitimacy to govern from Parliament show little respect to it. Only in times of crisis, it becomes important to them.
Otherwise, Parliament’s democratic role in decision-making is ignored. The result is that concerns of the people remain largely unaddressed, and their interests disregarded.
Since he came to office, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has made some positive changes in the style of governance, holding weekly meetings of the cabinet and also activating important committees involved in security, economic and inter-provincial affairs.
He needs to make it a routine too, like leaders in established democracies, to participate in parliamentary debates and respond to legislators’ questions. That would be expected of prime minister under normal circumstances, all the more so at present when the country faces myriad security and economic challenges.
He must play his role as the leader of the house. When he fulfils his duty towards the people’s representatives, his ministers will follow suit. The one thing no one must forget is that what lends strength to democracy is a vibrant parliamentary discourse.