New Assembly Faces Big Challenges

The general elections held on May 11 have led to decisive shift in the composition of the National Assembly of Pakistan, in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz. The Pakistan People’s Party, which ruled the country for the last five years saw its share shrink alarmingly, but obtained the coveted office of the Opposition Leader in the National Assembly.

The priorities of the PML-N government in terms of legislation-making may vary from the previous government. It is important to understand that the majority of the Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) follow the policy line of their respective political parties. It would be unrealistic to expect a Jamat-e-Islami MNA to demand abolishing Hudood Laws or over-optimistic to think a PML-N MNA would submit a bill to curb the powers of judiciary. Likewise, a People’s Party MNA may never move a bill to reopen the “fabricated” Swiss cases against the top leadership.

Those MNAs acting against the set policy of their respective parties in the Parliament often land themselves in trouble, facing rebukes and reprimands. The private members bills, which any member can move in his individual capacity, mostly reflect the agenda of the political parties. However, there are some exceptions.

The 14th National Assembly, which came into being as a result of the May 11 general elections, has many interesting characteristics. For one, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) has a sizeable strength on the opposition benches and most of its MNAs are the first timers. Similarly, several MNAs hailing from the PML-N and the People’s Party are the debutants in the 14th National Assembly. Most of them are excited and eager to do something extraordinary. Alizeh Iqbal Haider and Aisha Gulalai are two among them.

Ms. Haider is the daughter of former law minister and chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan late Iqbal Haider. She vows to carry forward the mission of her late father. Throughout his life, Mr. Haider championed the human rights. Besides pursuing an illustrious career in politics, he headed the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) with the full consent of his leader Benazir Bhutto.

Ms. Haider looks to travel in her father’s footsteps, and says that women’s rights are one of the areas she will be focusing on. Alizeh has to go an extra mile to establish herself among senior People’s Party colleagues including Sherry Rehman and Yasmeen Rehman. Both former MNAs outshined their male colleagues with their outstanding performance as legislators.

Ms. Gulalai on the other hand comes from the restive tribal areas. She is the first woman ever elected from those lands courtesy of the PTI, or more specifically Imran Khan. She is determined to prove the women from tribal areas are no inferior to those that come from modern metropolises.

Ms. Gulalai strongly believes in the PTI’s approach against the use of drones. She expects the PML-N government would not let the Americans continue the war against alleged militants through unmanned remote-control aircraft. She is pondering over moving specific legislation to disavow the drone war.

With thumping majority in the lower house of Parliament, the PML-N government would face no difficulty approving the laws it intends to enact. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the PML-N has 185 MNAs, which means the ruling party alone can pass a bill with simple majority in 342-seat house.

However, the government is facing a plethora of challenges including the energy crisis, an ailing economy, and a deteriorating law and order situation, amongst others. Unfortunately, it appears that the government is barely interested in getting on with the lethargic and monotonous process of legislation, focusing instead on trivial or less important issues. But there are a few areas it must act, and act fast.

A new law is in offing to revamp the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a constitution body that is mandated to investigate mega corruption cases. After the revamping, the NAB would be renamed as Ehtesab Commission. The administrative powers and jurisdictional issues of the commission would be streamlined.

But the problem that the PML-N would face here, and is perhaps the reason for its lethargy, is that the former ruling party, the PPP, stills holds a majority in the Senate with 39 Senators. The PML-N has 15 Senators and if it includes its allies the total number is still short of the simple majority in 104-seat upper house of Parliament.

The senate can block any bill emanated from the National Assembly. The People’s Party senior leader Syed Khurshid Shah has promised to cooperate with the government if his party is taken into confidence on proposed legislation. But the traditional political rivals disagree on several issues, especially on the new process of accountability.

However, half of the current set of Senators would retire in March 2015. Given the strength of the PML-N in Senate’s electoral college – the National and Provincial Assemblies – it would emerge as majority party after March 2015. Until then it has to either seek People’s Party support to get the bills passed or summon joint session of Parliament to clear the bills. Under the18th constitutional amendment, if there is dispute on the passage of any bill, a joint session of Parliament can be called to enable the government approve the bill.

Normally, any new government takes some time to get settled before commencing the legislative process. Soon after coming into power, the PML-N had to deal with the critical issue of preparing the budget. In the backdrop of economic crisis in the country it was a huge challenge for the infant government. The budget was the first of many areas where the performance of the 14th National Assembly will be compared with the previous People’s Party dominated house.

The previous assembly had held 50 regular sessions and met for more than 520 days in total. It has the distinction of hearing five addresses by the President of Pakistan – something unheard of or unseen in Pakistan’s legislative history. A latest report by the National Assembly Secretariat says the house passed 116 government and 18 private members’ bills. Out of these, 81 bills successfully went through the entire legislative procedure to become Acts of Parliament.

Probably, the biggest achievement of the last assembly was passage of 18th and 20th constitutional amendments. The amendment restored the 1973 Constitution to almost its original shape, streamlined the procedure of appointment of judges to the superior judiciary and Election Commission, ensured provincial autonomy and deprived the President the discretionary powers of dissolving the National Assembly. The Prime Minister’s role was fully empowered representing the aspiration of the people.

The 13th National Assembly worked extensively on pro-women legislation against domestic violence, harassment at workplace and public places and anti-women practices. The establishment of Parliamentary Women Caucus helped achieve the milestone of pro-women legislations.

The previous assembly set a healthy trend of taking up and passing private members’ bills. Normally, the private members’ bills are not entertained because every government wants to take credit of the legislation. The previous assembly broke that impasse taking up more than 180 private members’ bills, out of which 18 bills were passed – something that can be seen as a big achievement.

The 13th National Assembly also discussed 243 resolutions, adopting 85 of them. The resolutions ranged from women rights, minorities protection, Balochistan, terrorism, target killings, missing persons, etc. Some specific resolutions like killing of Osama bin Laden and attack on Malala Yusufzai were also passed.

During the last five parliamentary years, more than 200 MNAs asked over 16,000 questions of which 80 percent were answered by the concerned ministers or advisors. The official statistics show the house took up 440 call attention notices on the matters of urgent public importance.

The participation of the MNAs in the last assembly was more or less satisfactory. They took part in debates, raised questions and delivered speeches on important subjects. The pace of work set by the last assembly has posed a challenge to the existing one. In order to perform better, the government as well as the opposition must get their acts together and work with total dedication, sincerity and seriousness.