Supreme authority in a democratic state
In the 38th session of parliament held in December last year, opposition leader Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah wanted to debate the matter of Panama Scandal on the floor of the house. But speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq interrupted the opposition leader and asked him to refrain from discussing the Panama scandal, as the matter is subjudice and cannot be debated in parliament. The opposition leader abruptly and aggressively responded and said as quoted here, “it is the parliament and the constitution, which is supreme. Parliament is sacrosanct than all the institutions and even sacred than the apex court of the country, because this house (parliament) has the ‘will’ of more than 200 million people of Pakistan. This ‘will’ of the people is above all the institutions and has the importance”.
I would not get into legal debate as to who actually holds the supreme authority in a democratic state, whether it is parliament or judiciary. Though, in many national constitutions the existence and power of both parliament and judiciary are set out in the constitution itself. Part 3, chapter 2 of the constitution of Pakistan (from article 50 to 89) outlines structure of parliament and its legislative power. Whereas, Part 7 all chapters, (from article 175 to 212) outlines the jurisdiction of the courts (judicature). Those who are interested may analyse above mentioned articles. My appended opinion would rather focus on the statement of the opposition leader on parliamentary supremacy and the role of parliament.
The opposition leader may be right in his statement that more than 200 million people ‘will’ make parliament a supreme institution. That illustration of supremacy means that parliament is embodiment of people’s will, values and emotions and is supposed to protect the interest of its electors i.e., people.
While listening to the opposition leader, few questions strike my mind: What if those 200 million people withheld their support to parliament? What if those 200 million people don’t see any stake or belonging to parliament? What would be the status of parliament without people’s will?
So, it is the public, who actually holds the supreme authority in a democratic state and without their support and will, parliament is nothing more than a building. People are the actual masters who rule through their representatives and those elected representatives do legislations for their master (i.e., public).
Are the elected representatives doing their assigned job? Are they taking part in legislative process? Are they doing legislation for their masters?
If we analyse the last three parliamentary years (June 1, 2013 to May 30, 2016) of the incumbent government, it shows declining trend of lawmakers’ interest in the National Assembly. Very few members are regular and take part in majority proceedings of parliament. Performance of the key political leaders on their attendance record and legislation in the National Assembly is not much promising.
During the last three parliamentary years, out of 289 sittings in 32 sessions, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended only 39 sittings, while Imran Khan attended 18. However, Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq (245 sittings), Deputy Speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi (237 sitting) and leader of the opposition Syed Khursheed Shah (221 sittings) appear relatively much higher in the National Assembly. Other key lawmakers also have poor attendance records; Hamza Shahbaz Sharif appeared in 22 sittings, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi in 40, Farooq Sattar 56, Maulana Fazlur Rehman 67, and Sheikh Rashid Ahmad attended 185 sittings.
If political leaders will not take part in parliamentary proceedings, how are people supposed to respect parliament and parliamentary supremacy?
On the legislation front, the lawmakers’ performance is again not lucrative with regard to the general public. This 14th National Assembly passed 88 bills, including two constitutional amendments, during 36 sessions (June 1, 2013 to October 30, 2016), while 73 of these bills have become an Act of Parliament after passage from the Senate and assent of the President. These bills are focusing mainly on economy (34), security (10) and judiciary (14), whereas, education (2), human rights (1) and health (0) are the least legislative concerns of lawmakers. Such legislation shows the incumbent government priorities for their public.
In light of above mentioned legislative priorities, the general public doesn’t see any stake in that parliament, as there is least legislation with regard to public basic needs, which may directly impact their lives. In such scenario, people are forced to believe that their elected representatives are protecting their own interest, instead of safeguarding the interest of their electors.
I understand that economic prosperity and security are critically important for a country to move forward, but health, education, food security, clean drinking water, sanitation and many more are equally serious challenges for this country to flourish. Malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to clean drinking water and lack of basic health facilities causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Only due to polluted water, 250,000 children under five die every year in Pakistan, which is much higher than any violence, even war. Such non-traditional security challenges are posing serious threats to Pakistan’s economic and national security. Perhaps, we need to prioritise our national interest in favour of public, because without securing people, there shall be no national security, no development and no prosperity at all.
People would eventually start hating their elected representatives, if they keep on ignoring their interest. In such scenario, people’s hate reach to that extend where they start looking towards a maseeha (guardian), who may safeguard their interest according to their will. People wouldn’t care whatever may happen to parliament, because they don’t see any ownership. They will never protect parliament, as they don’t see any stake, they feel no belonging to parliament and they think that parliament do not truly represent their feelings, emotions and values.
Such public sentiments pave the way for unconstitutional act and derail the democratic process. That is why, four times in the history of Pakistan, whenever a military dictator ousted the sitting elected government, there was no resistance from the public; instead, people distributed sweats on roads and welcome the dictator as their ‘Maseeha’ (guardian). Have we ever examined the certain people behaviour towards their elected representatives? And why people don’t see parliament as guardian of their fundamental rights?
Parliament’s role should be as a forum for expressing public opinion and promoting public agenda on the floor. The focus of the lawmakers should be on strengthening parliament as a supreme institution. Parliament could only be strengthened through progressive, prudent and people-centered legislation; the legislation which protect public interest, and the legislation which safeguard fundamental rights of the people, as envisaged in the constitution (from article 8 to 28). If parliament does not protect the interest of its people, then there is no doubt that parliament would lose its legitimacy, and hence, supremacy.
Parliament’s role shouldn’t end there, but to make sure that the decisions (laws) taken in parliament must reach out to public at large through necessary public awareness campaigns. So that the public should know their constitutional and legal rights as citizen of Pakistan.
Furthermore, the political leaders must give importance to parliament through enhanced participation in parliamentary proceedings and make people believe that parliament is the custodian of their fundamental rights and will protect its people at any cost. Only then will people protect and defend their parliament. This is the only way to keep parliament, a supreme institution, in a democratic state.