Democracy: The Game Of Legislative Speed Runs

Democracy: The Game Of Legislative Speed Runs
With just days remaining in the tenure of the outgoing government, it has sought to turn the Parliament into a mill that rubber-stamps legislation en masse. Such has been the flurry of activity that it has alarmed even some sitting on treasury benches in both houses of Parliament about where these bills and amendments are coming from, what is their true purpose, and why they are being ramrodded through at such a ferocious pace whilst ignoring prescribed rules and regulations.

Yet there have been pockets of resistance and disagreement under breath, but nothing would hinder the real task.

The upper and lower houses of the Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) have recently witnessed the treasury benches disposing of scores of bills in marathon sittings at a frightening pace.

If anything, it has reprised memories of how the PTI, which was accused of being an ordinance factory or of pushing through nearly three dozen bills in a dizzying single joint sitting where many lawmakers had no idea what they had signed. The only thought weighing on them was adhering to the party line or risk losing their seat.

Political pundits believe that the main players in the allied parties are largely in agreement on the legislation being speedily passed.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is not in a position to annoy any of its partners at this late political juncture. Several key bills have already been bulldozed through the Parliament. What is different between how bills are being disposed of now and during the PTI tenure is that no noisy members occupy the opposition benches.

Imran Khan's supposed masterstroke in April last year when he responded to his democratic ouster with en masse resignations of his entire parliamentary party in the lower house of the Parliament, leaving the field completely open for the government.

Government bills have sailed through like a knife through butter. The government has taken this as an opportunity to set a new record in both houses of Parliament by not only ignoring parliamentary rules but also with the presence of lawmakers.

Last week, the National Assembly passed around 29 bills in an hour flat. That means bills were passed at an average rate of a bill being introduced and passed every two minutes - just enough to read out the bill's title and vote on it.

Normally, any bill tabled in the Parliament must positively cross all regular prerequisite stages, including threadbare discussions in the relevant parliamentary committees and a debate on the floor of the house, before being subject to a vote.

READ MORE: PILDAT Endorses Expansive Local Govt Constitutional Amendment Bill

Not only was this requirement flouted, but the lower house of Parliament approved all of these bills with fewer than the minimum required strength (86 lawmakers).

Among the bills rushed through included the controversial 'E-Safety Bill 2023', which seeks to introduce new curbs on digital media, including websites and YouTube channels.

The situation in the upper house of Parliament was not much different from the National Assembly. The Senate passed the 'Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2023' with little to no concerns raised.
The government is expected to bulldoze laws, ignoring the practice of conducting a debate in the house and the concerned standing committee

The bill seeks a jail sentence of up to five years for anyone who discloses sensitive information about the security of the country or the Pakistan Army. The bill was passed without sending it to the concerned standing committee of Parliament for debate.

This bill will now be included in the agenda of the National Assembly this week, and the government is expected to bulldoze it, ignoring the practice of conducting a debate in the house and the concerned standing committee.

How the bill was presented and passed was too much for Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator Raza Rabbani, a member of a key coalition partner in the government, to stomach. He opted to register his strong protest.

Complaining that the rules were being ignored, he staged a walkout from the proceedings. But his act of conscience could not prevent the ruling rainbow coalition from hurriedly passing the bill.

READ MORE: Senate Approves Amendments To Army Act

The Pakistan Army (Amend­ment) Bill, 2023 seeks to amend the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 proposed that "anyone who dis­closes or causes to be disclosed any information, acquired in of­ficial capacity, which is or may be prejudicial to the security and interest of Pakistan or the armed forces of Pakistan, shall be … punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years".

However, if someone does so "after seeking prior approv­al from the chief of army staff (COAS), or any officer duly em­powered by him,…" then it shall not be deemed as an "unautho­rised disclosure".

A political conscience did grow in the Senate on Sunday when senators from the government and treasury benches voiced their opposition to the Prevention of Violent Extremism (Amendment) Bill 2023.

READ MORE: Senate Retreats From ‘Controversial’ Anti-Extremism Bill After Opposition

The bill was tabled by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Minister of State Shahadat Awan.

Ruling coalition member from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Senator Kamran Murtaza, opposed the bill on the floor of the house. He insisted that the bill would insult all parties, even if, underneath, it was aimed at targeting a particular party.
They received support from across the aisle from the Jamaat-e-Islami. Senator Mushtaq Ahmed said the bill was not just against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but against all political parties

Fellow JUI-F Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri noted that the allied parties did not know what would happen to them tomorrow should this bill pass.

They received support from across the aisle from the Jamaat-e-Islami. Senator Mushtaq Ahmed said the bill was not just against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but against all political parties.

Senator Tahir Bizinjo complained that whoever talks about the supremacy of the Constitution will be the first target under this bill.

Dr Humayun Mohmand of the PTI claimed the bill was clearly aimed at barring his party from contesting elections. He demanded the bill be sent to the relevant committee for discussion first.

Eventually, ruling party member PML-N's Senator Irfan Siddiqui opposed the bill, stating that it imposes a ban on everyone, including politicians.

Curiously, a member from Rabbani's party, Senator Sherry Rehman, argued that the bill should be passed and that it can always be amended later, raising questions about who needed convincing through the passage of these bills.

Political gurus and constitutional experts have suggested that many governments pass several bills in haste in their final weeks. In doing so, every political party has blatantly ignored parliamentary rules. But the current state of affairs has even been the cause of alarm for them.