AMONG a host of questionable decisions by both the government and the opposition in the wake of the Panama revelations, there has come at last a wholly welcome and sensible one: the opposition has decided to end its boycott of parliament. Triggered by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overt reluctance to engage with parliament on a regular basis, the opposition boycott achieved its basic purpose of having the prime minister appear in parliament. That Mr Sharif did not on Monday answer the questions that the opposition had put to him is something for the opposition to wrangle with — as long as the debate is held inside parliament. At its core, whatever the specifics that the government and the opposition want to focus on, the Panama Papers debate is about improving the quality of democracy in the country. One route, a clearly necessary one, is to ensure that the country’s elected representatives are held to a progressively higher standard of conduct than in the past and as compared to the average citizen.
The other route, equally vital, is for the institutions of democracy to be strengthened. Unhappily, arguments for institutionalising democracy are often dismissed as pedantic or trite. The baseline is considered to be what the politicians themselves do once elected, and far too often the behaviour in elected office lacks respect for democratic institutions. Yet, that is not always the case. Consider the previous parliament where PPP prime ministers, particularly Yousuf Raza Gilani, made it a point to regularly attend parliament and answers questions where necessary. True, the role of the prime minister in the last parliament was limited by the reality that the PPP boss, and hence centre of power, was in the presidency. But Mr Zardari, too, made it a point to abide by the constitutional requirement of addressing a joint session of parliament each year and, perhaps more historically, transferring virtually all his constitutional powers to parliament and the prime minister. Glaring as the governance deficit was under the last PPP government, parliament surely gained in strength. It was doubly surprising, then, to see the PPP lead a walkout from parliament on Monday with the prime minister himself present in the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, the other leading opposition party, the PTI, has demonstrated a bewilderingly contradictory approach to parliament. Having boycotted the last parliament, the PTI has spent much time during the current one arguing for a fundamental pillar of a democratic institution — transparency and fairness in the process by which parliament is elected. Yet, the PTI has demonstrated a remarkable indifference to the actual workings of parliament, with Imran Khan leading the way in terms of non-attendance and the PTI membership generally uninterested in parliamentary goings-on. Perhaps now, with the PML-N needing to answer serious questions still, the leading opposition parties will once again begin to treat parliament with the respect it deserves.