Parliamentary Supremacy: Mea Culpa Not Enough

Parliamentary supremacy is neither automatic nor to be taken for granted, writes Farhatullah Babar

Parliamentary Supremacy: Mea Culpa Not Enough
Mea culpa is a Latin phrase which means “through my own fault” and it is an acknowledgement of having done something wrong.

On Monday last week, when the National Assembly started its general debate on the presidential address which Arif Alvi had delivered almost 10 months ago, some members spoke mea culpa. While loud voices were raised protesting the assault on the parliament by other state institutions and calling for parliamentary supremacy, some candid admissions were also made. Parliamentarians themselves were responsible for surrendering their space to unelected elements in the state’s power structure, they said.

But is mere mea culpa enough or there is a need to move beyond it? If yes, how to begin restoring parliamentary supremacy?

That the parliament has been undermined by other state organs is quite well known. But there has been little discussion on how to arrest this downslide. While the admission of failure was praiseworthy, it was disappointing that no suggestions were made on the way forward.

To be fair, the issue had also been discussed during Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) meetings before the PPP and ANP were thrown out of the opposition group. It is not known if it is still discussed in whatever is left of the PDM. However, it is clear that the opposition parties have failed in formulating any concrete plan to challenge the deep state that has undermined parliamentary supremacy through a “creeping coup.”

Admission of collective failure is the first welcome step towards taking some sort of collective action. One hopes that the ongoing debate on the presidential address will result in formulating a collective action plan to contain the onslaught by the de facto arm against the de jure arm of the state.

The parliament’s failures are many and some recent ones are obvious too. For instance, the legislation not long ago on the extension in the service of the army chief. The parliament, even if it had to agree to the extension, could have granted it in a way that ensured its upper hand by proposing amendments in the legislation. The deep state would still be displeased but it could not have gone too far in imposing its will because it would still have secured the extension. The parliamentarians could have given a calibrated response to what appeared an absolute demand of the de facto but it failed.

Or take the issue of allotment of 90 acres of land to a former military chief. When a question was raised in the Senate, the army’s spokesperson angrily tweeted that the allotment was in accordance with the constitution and the law, without quoting any article of the constitution or the law that allowed it. He even warned that such questions amounted to destroying harmony between institutions and were detrimental to national security. The parliament and the political parties should have debated the issue regardless of the outcome but they failed.

Not long ago, the parliament also failed in legislation for across-the-board accountability of all and everyone paid out of the national exchequer, judges and generals included, even when an opportunity presented itself. It failed in making legislation to regulate use of suo moto powers. It also failed in making legislation to determine the mandate and functions of state’s intelligence agencies.

A way forward for the parliament, therefore, is for opposition parties to collectively invoke various parliamentary instruments like questions, calling attention notices, adjournment motions and legislative bills on such issues as counterbalance to their remote control by the de facto.

A practical beginning may be made by taking up immediately the unanimous recommendations of the Senate that were endorsed sometime back by all parties and all provinces.

In December 2015, in its report the Senate Committee of the Whole not only endorsed the draft legislation on the mandate of the ISI but also underscored the way forward by unanimously deciding:

“The government shall submit report to the Senate bi-partisan oversight committee on the adoption of the ISI Bill 2012 within one month of the adoption of this Report of the Committee of the Whole.” Further, “if the Committee is satisfied with the Report, then it shall share the progress with the House. If the Committee is not satisfied with the Report, then the Committee shall recommend to the House that the ISI Bill may be moved as Private Member’s Bill signed by all the parliamentary parties’ leaders.”

A great opportunity for asserting parliamentary supremacy is thus available. Who else, if not the parliament and political parties, are to be blamed if they fail in collectively pushing for this legislation to rein in the deep state?

A number of initiatives can be identified for the opposition parties to collectively invoke parliamentary instruments in the manner prescribed in the Committee of the Whole report namely “signed by all the parliamentary parties’ leaders.”

Who can, for instance, say no to a discussion on a motion that may be jointly moved by leaders of parliamentary parties on the television interview, not long ago, by General Pervez Musharraf in which he publicly admitted to have been gifted millions of dollars into his personal account by an Arab monarch in addition to flats in London and Dubai? Nothing concrete or immediate may come out of it but its ripple effect cannot be ignored.

When the parliament and political parties fail to ask questions relating to security, the de facto and deep state, it only strengthens the perception of weaknesses of parties due to skeletons in the cupboard. This perception must be dispelled if the parliament is to defend against onslaught, much less assert itself. Collective action is the way forward.

Parliamentary supremacy is neither automatic nor to be taken for granted. It will not be bestowed merely by mea culpa. It has to be earned by enforcing accountability and transparency by collectively invoking parliamentary instruments — something that parliamentarians themselves will have to do.

The writer is a former senator