22nd Amendment: Our Dictatorial Democracy

 

wolf-in-sheep-clothing

While progressing democracies all over the world work at moving forward and bringing their trends in line with democracy, we in Pakistan try to bring democracy in line with our hugely messed up trends. The result is a distorted form of democracy that looks more like a dictatorship and, in reality, is neither.

PMLN government is busy trying to rush a 22nd constitutional amendment aimed at discouraging and eliminating “horse trading”. Never in its two year term have we seen the ruling party so focused and tireless in its efforts. Not for eradicating the menace of load shedding, improving law and order in the country, providing better health care and education to its citizens, eliminating corruption, saving lives of children dying for lack of equipment at government hospitals, investigating into and bringing to justice the perpetrators of model town massacre or for any other cause that benefits the people and not themselves. The sense of urgency for the 22nd amendment is not for the noble cause of strengthening democracy, as claimed, but actually for the fear that party members may not vote for party candidates, owing primarily to the alleged autocratic decision making in selecting candidates and also to the dissatisfaction of members over party leaders’ indifferent attitude towards them.

If passed, said amendment will in effect deprive the members – of legislative assemblies – of yet another freedom to vote. Already dictated by party leaders – instead of voters or constituents – while voting in elections of Prime Minister, Chief Minister, money bills, votes of confidence and no confidence, the proposed amendment shall add another constraint. Labeled democratic, this move is anything but. The aim of said amendment is to make it mandatory for all MNAs and MPAs to vote exactly as told. To tag such move as “democratic” is nothing short of a horrendous joke. To give this farce a legitimate face, the government has chosen to present it as an antidote to defection or floor crossing; an act already kept under strong checks by way of Article 63A of the constitution. It may be noted that floor crossing or switching parties is not the same as voting against party lines.

The suggested amendments aim at ensuring that a member of the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies votes for candidates who are backed by their party heads in the Senate elections. It revolves around the pretext that the only reason for a member voting against party lines and on his own accord is monetary or other benefits and not any valid, cogent or ethical reasoning. The justification presented for the need for an amendment is the assumption that MNAs and MPAs cannot be trusted and lack moral integrity. This puts a huge question mark on the electoral process. When a government or the Parliament acquiescently accepts its own moral ineptness, it is them who need to be changed and not the constitution.

Elected by their constituents, Parliamentarians ought to be bound by will of the people who elected them and not by the whims and wishes of their party heads. Article 63A is already the most undemocratic provision of our constitution. This dictatorial provision makes elected representatives answerable to party heads and not the people.

Let’s assume that all members sitting in the assemblies are honest people of integrity – which would be the case if Articles 62 and 63 were being enforced – and disagree with the party line in a money bill or an election. Say a member honestly believes that voting for a candidate is detrimental to his country’s interests and a breach of trust reposed in him by his voters. In a democracy that member should be allowed to follow his conscience and instinct, as he has been trusted to do so by all who voted for him and sent him to Parliament. But by virtue of Article 63 A, a member cannot follow his conscience, instincts or the wishes of his constituents, for if those are not in line with his party head’s whims they don’t really matter.

Article 63 A and the 22nd second amendment are justified only when the above assumed integrity and honesty of Parliamentarians is denied and when it is accepted that Articles 62 and 63 are not being followed in their spirit. The remedy is not to curtail the independence and freedom of Parliamentarians further, but to ensure access to Parliament for only those who would keep the nation’s interest before their own. This amendment, like Article 63 A, will only retard the democratic process. It is a step backwards that snatches power from Parliament and the people it represents and places it in hands of a few. It undermines the entire process of electing our representatives as they are abstained from freely representing us.

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Sleeping Northern Gas Pipeline Limited (SNGPL)

The saddest thing about the following ordeal is that these facts will not come as a surprise to my unfortunate fellow countrymen.

On the 9th of February, 2015, at around 4:55 pm I discovered a gas leak in the main supply pipe of my house in DHA, Lahore. At 5 pm I called the emergency help line of SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited) and my complaint was officially registered at 5:05 pm. I was asked to secure the spot of leak with a piece of cloth and be extremely cautious that no one lights a match or lighter in the surroundings of the leak, till the response team arrives. I tied a cloth which reduced the pressure of the leak and asked my father’s driver to stand near the pipe and keep watch.

At 6:30 pm I asked my father to call the emergency helpline and introduce himself, since my complaint as an ordinary citizen had failed to induce a response. So my father called the emergency helpline, re-registered the complaint and mentioned that he was a Member of the National Assembly, hoping that this may activate the otherwise sleeping emergency response team. In a way it was heartening to discover that SNGPL has shunned the VIP culture completely, since it treated a complaint from an MNA as callously as it treated the complaint from an ordinary citizen and no personnel of the department contacted us or visited the site.

At 7:43 pm I called the emergency helpline again and tried to explain to the person on the other end how dangerous the situation was. The person I was talking to was well aware of the perils of a gas leak and knew how this could turn into an unfortunate accident any second. For the third time I was promised that personnel from the department would contact me and visit the site as soon as possible. I was again asked to take precautions.

Frustrated by the negligence, callousness and complete disregard for public safety, on part of the department, my father called the helpline yet again at 8:44 pm. This time he expressed some anger and asked for the contact number of any responsible officer. The person attending the call could not oblige since he did not know the name or number for any responsible officer. This was not a surprise to me though, as judging by their ridiculous laxity it was obvious there weren’t many responsible officers in the department. The person receiving the call however yet again assured my father that he is completely aware of how dangerous the situation is and how the department values its customers and public safety.

It is 11 pm now when I write this. Almost six hours have passed. The department of SNGPL has failed to respond to an emergency within six hours of being intimated thereof. The driver still stands guard by the main pipe and I have further secured the leak with wheat (aata). Thanks to this citizen’s meticulous precautions, the gas leak has not transformed into an unfortunate accident, not yet. A department that can delay an emergency response for six long hours, can do it for another six or even twelve, so I don’t know the fate of this leak, this house and this writer. Who knows these words may be this writer’s very last, thanks to the all competent and noble SNGPL.

The Ghost Member

On April 1st, 2013 the Supreme Court passed an order directing the Higher Education Commission to verify degrees of legislators. In the last days of January 2015 the Election Commission of Pakistan de-notified a member of the 15th Punjab Assembly, almost two years after the end of its tenure. It took the judicial system seven years to do what a Returning Officer is expected to do in days.

Upon inquiry with regard to said notification, an ECP official is said to have asserted that it meant the member had never been elected to the Assembly. The member is consequently bound to return all privileges and salaries drawn during his now non-existent tenure. The law and ECP are however silent with regard to acts done in his capacity as an MPA. His role in assembly debates, his vote in finance bills, amendments, legislation and elections of the Chief Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, President and Senate. By said de-notification the member has been rendered the status of a ghost in the Punjab Assembly from 2008-2013. While he is now considered to never have been elected, he was very much present in the Assembly for five years, as real as any other member.

Should the member’s speeches on floor of the house now be deleted from records, videos of assembly sessions edited to delete footage of the de-notified member? Should the votes be recounted in all elections held in the 15th Punjab Assembly? Proceedings of standing committees, of which he was a member, be revised? Is being a member of such august legislative houses all about perks, privileges and salaries?

Any omission to specifically invalidate all actions of the member in his capacity as an MPA, must be construed as an implied validation of these acts. So in effect an individual who was never elected as an MPA participated in the assembly proceedings and was treated as an MPA by his constituents, district administration, province and country.

It will be unfortunate if this remains an unresolved, ignored lacuna in our legal system.