There is something distinctly unsettling happening to the institution of parliament in Pakistan. Quietly and with little fuss, it is fading away, becoming an irrelevance, withering for lack of care and attention. Considering the celebrations attendant on the last general election as an example of democracy becoming more firmly embedded, it is little short of shameful as to the way that parliamentarians and parties have treated the institution to which they were elected. The government consistently struggles to maintain a quorum in parliament, the leaders of political parties set a poor example to the MNAs by rarely showing up, and when they do put in appearance, it is more tokenism than any attempt to make a meaningful contribution to debate.
The speaker of the house is frustrated, and is reduced to sending written messages out to federal ministers to bring them to the House, and he has suspended proceedings 12 times recently for the lack of a quorum. The budget debate was illuminating for several of the wrong reasons. The books containing the budget sat on MPs’ desks with their ribbons intact — indicating that they had never been opened never mind read. Around 50-60 MPs walked out of the budget speech and even Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was absent for much of the following debate.
Just who is responsible for this parlous state of parliamentary affairs is anybody’s guess, with everybody pointing fingers at everybody else. The reality is that it is a collective failure owned by all in parliament. Some of those that trumpet loudest about ‘threats to democracy’ are themselves among the most dilatory when it comes to upholding its basic institutions and tenets. They themselves are the greatest threats to democracy for failing to tend and nurture it. Party leaders are exposed as being anything but that, treating parliament as an expenses-and-accommodation mill rather than the cutting edge of democratic process. The government has a comfortable majority and consequently sees little added value in working the parliamentary imperative, and an institution that should stand proud for the nation is little more than a shrivelled husk. Threats to democracy? There are 342 of them in parliament.