Difficult Agenda, Firm Response Another Year of Political Consensus

ISLAMABAD, March 20, 2012: Geo-strategic challenges, national security, political instability, civil-military relations and executive-judiciary tension largely defined the agenda for the 13th National Assembly during its fourth parliamentary year that ended on March 17, according to a preliminary report released by Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) on Tuesday.

The year saw the National Assembly responding to major events such as the killing of Osama bin Laden in an American operation inside Pakistan and NATO’s attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 soldiers.

The Lower House also had to deal with the confrontation between the executive and the military over the memogate controversy, growing public agitation over the prevailing multi-sector governance crisis and a judiciary verdict declaring unconstitutional all by-elections held after the passage of the 18th amendment.

The report said the National Assembly’s response in most cases was swift and categorical, although its actions were not matched by the executive in terms of their enforcement, deepening a public perception of parliamentary ineffectiveness.

While Pakistan’s security and political parties’ institutional interest drew unanimity and urgency of parliamentary actions, issues of public interest such as weak governance, institutional corruption, unemployment and increasing poverty remained on the backburner and low on the Assembly’s priorities.

Political unanimity appeared to dwindle on matters of public importance with 59 of 88 bills introduced in the House through its fourth year still pending, 53 of 61 Resolutions on the agenda not taken up, 48 of 145 Calling Attention Notices never allowed to be raised, 543 questions of 2,425 never answered and one of five adjournment motions not debated.

According to the report, the unattended agenda of the Lower House largely focused on issues that are relevant to public wellbeing such as employment, public health and growing inflation. The Charter of Child Rights Bill, the Pakistan Food Security Bill and the Senior Citizens Welfare Bill were some of the Private Member’s Bills that could have been taken up by the House.

Similarly, eight Resolutions on health-related issues, five on education and four on employment remained unaddressed. The House also did not take up 13 Calling Attention Notices pertaining to energy-related issues, five to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and three to Pakistan Railways.

Some landmark legislation through political consensus included the Bill on Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention – passed unanimously on May 10, 2011. Another Private Members’ Bill regarding the protection of women rights – the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill 2011 – was also passed with consensus in November 2011.

Two treasury sponsored Bills, the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012 for promoting social, economic, political and legal rights of women and the Women in Distress and Detention Fund (Amendment) Bill 2010, were passed in unanimity with the Opposition Benches.

Among major issues raised during the year, energy crisis – gas and electricity outages and increasing tariffs – was discussed through 343 parliamentary interventions by various legislators, most of them from the opposition benches, followed by law and order (112 interventions, and agriculture-related issues (81). The situation in Balochistan was raised in 72 parliamentary interventions.

In keeping with its practice documented during the first three years, the National Assembly only attended to 40% agenda items on its Orders of the Day during 100 sittings clubbed into 10 sessions. The abysmally low disposal of agenda corresponds with a low average sitting time through the year that remained two hours and 51 minutes.

FAFEN defines a parliamentary intervention as each of the instances when a Member of the National Assembly either submits an agenda item on the Orders of the Day (Calling Attention Notices, Questions, Private Members’ Bills, etc.) or raises his/her concerns during a debate on the floor of the House (Points of Order, Supplementary Questions, Debate on Adjournment Motions, etc.).

The Lower House met for 284 hours and 51 minutes as compared to 348 hours and 43 minutes last year. None of the 100 sittings started on time and were delayed on average by 52 minutes. The average delay in the preceding year was 43 minutes. The longest sitting in the fourth year lasted six hours and 11 minutes during the budget session, while the shortest was eight minutes during the 33rd session.

The PMLN kept the treasury benches challenged in the National Assembly throughout the year. Their Members raised 68% of all questions put to the treasury in line with their mandate to provide an effective executive oversight.

The interest of a majority of Members remained generally low in the proceedings, with 61 out of 341 Members belonging to seven parties not participating in any parliamentary business throughout the year. Among them were 14 women and 47 men – 24 belonging to Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP), 14 to Pakistan Muslim League (PML), nine to Pakistan Muslim League –Nawaz (PMLN), five to Awami National Party (ANP), three to Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PMLF) and one each to Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Party (MMAP) and National People’s Party (NPP).

Four non-participating Members sat on independent benches. MQM was the only parliamentary party which ensured that all of its 25 Members participated in the proceedings.

On average 66 Members were present at the beginning and 76 at the adjournment of each sitting which was less than the 1/4th of the total Membership (86 Members) required for meeting Quorum. Though the Quorum was visibly lacking, it was not pointed out throughout the year.

A gender-wise analysis of the fourth year places women Members ahead of their male counterparts in terms of participation in various parliamentary businesses. Sixty-five or 86% of 77 women parliamentarians accounted for more than half of the agenda conducted during the year. In comparison, male Members, who constitute 77% of the National Assembly, seemed less active in asserting and raising public voices.

The executive responsiveness to the assembly also remained weak as it failed to respond to 22% of all questions. Most of the unanswered questions were directed to the Ministry of Interior. However, the ministerial presence in the assembly session improved as compared to previous year. This perhaps is a result of interest of the Leader of the House in the assembly proceedings, who maintained his tradition of attending the sittings regularly by participating in 82 out of 100 sittings. The Prime Minister remained the most present leader of any parliamentary party in the House. His counterpart from the PMLN, the Leader of the Opposition, could only make it to 42 sittings.

The Speaker did not chair 57% of the sittings, although she might have been conducting official business in her chambers. The Deputy Speaker attended 80% of the sittings.

A total of 210  legislators raised 1,182 Points of Order (used exclusively to indicate any violation in conduct of business of the House) to speak on various issues that consumed 5,175 minutes (30%) of the total time otherwise allocated to formal agenda.

About FAFEN: FAFEN is a network of 42 civil society organizations working to foster democratic accountabilities in Pakistan. It is governed by the Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability.