Empty assembly

Published in Dawn – photo by Akram Abid

This past week, President Arif Alvi, sole survivor of the tabdeeli government at the centre, said, ‘If [Imran] had asked me, I would have suggested not leaving the assembly.’

After being pushed out of power last April, the PTI had upped and quit parliament. Ever since, the assembly’s resembled a bit of a haunted house: the seats are empty, the lights are bright, and treasury members make grand speeches to themselves. The leader of the opposition is Raja Riaz, about whom the only thing that can be said is he’s leader of the opposition.

It didn’t have to be this way: having learned from the mud and blood of 2007, our third democratic transition could have been clean, composed, perhaps even cause to celebrate. Instead, we’re in the middle of a national nightmare: assassinations, cries of default, and terror bleeding back into the headlines.

The obvious thing would be to call elections: constant crisis requires a government, of whichever victorious party, to get through five years, powered by a popular mandate, with the guts to take hard decisions.

But that’s not happening: the first families fear getting trounced by the voter, as well as heading into the campaign without (an immunized) Mian sahib. As for the other side, it decided to hit the streets and force early polls; this came to an end with a full-blown assassination attempt on Mr. Khan, conveniently unresolved.

Hence the current scenario: a government that refuses to hold elections, and an opposition that is out of the streets, but not in the assembly. We proceed on that basis.

First, whether or not the PTI faithful decide to exit the assemblies in Lahore and Peshawar, it makes no sense to leave the house in Islamabad. If ever there was a time for parliament – no less its largest party – to thrash out a roadmap to the voter, to make common cause, to signpost actual alternatives in policy and economy, it is now.

Second, part of the reason we got here is because the assembly has been shivering in the cold. For three years, the PTI preferred ordinances to bills – the most in our history. Mr. Khan says he’s no fan of the parliamentary system, but he didn’t attend sessions when in power; his party doesn’t attend now, when out of it. Most important, he’d forsaken his biggest strength – a parliamentary majority – to rely on the gloved hand. As soon as that hand pointed the other way, the PTI government fell.

Nor was this inevitable: Benazir was able to rally her members and avert precisely such an outcome in 1989, despite a siege by the establishment. The vote of no-confidence failed.

Of course, when Ms. Bhutto did fall (as when Mr. Khan fell), Mian sahib’s men were more than happy to take the reins. That’s more or less the lesson of Pakistan’s 75 years: as long as the next civilian patsy is willing to swoop in, the deep state will keep torpedoing prime ministers one after the other.

And yet these are new lows for vote ko izzat dou. The last time the Sharif-Bhuttos wanted to dodge criminal cases and pin a fourth star, they didn’t have to lend a shoulder to toppling a government, dance into the middle of a dumpster fire economy, piggyback ten other parties to make bank in the centre, find the most satirical officeholder for each portfolio, and then smile away FIRs, arrests, and mass revulsion.

Third, the entire point of elections is so that our representatives actually sit in the assembly, and pass laws that make the country a better place. There can be no point to early polls if the eventual winners won’t embrace what’s at the end: the parliamentary process.

Fourth, now more than ever, parliament is at the core of our entire constitutional scheme. Throughout the life of this country, the Supreme Court refused to restore the assembly eight out of ten times. Of the two exceptions, the first, Nawaz Sharif v. President from 1993, was three decades ago, and never caught on: Mian sahib was sent home soon after.

But it was last April that the Court, in a tremendous verdict in Pakistan People’s Party v. Federation, restored the assembly. Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial held that ‘the crucial democratic principle of parliamentary government…[is] government by a political party or coalition as comprise the majority of the total membership of the National Assembly.’

This was followed by the Court’s advisory opinion in Supreme Court Bar Association v. Federation, where the parliamentary party was protected at the cost of the defector (which merits more space later) – returning the PTI to Punjab. At no point in the past have our parliamentary parties boasted this much legal coherence; it is again the parliamentary system that’s been held to be a salient feature of our Constitution.

All said, the PTI would do well to heed the words of the president and chief justice, and return to the assembly at the centre. As for the PDM, having at last succeeded in throttling all corruption cases against themselves, they can shift focus to heeding the electorate.

Announce a date. Dein vote ko izzat.

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