Neutering Parliament with APCs

“Published in Express Tribune Blogs on 2nd of April, 2015”

Opposition parties, under the leadership of Mr. Asif Zardari have asked the government to call an all parties conference (APC) for deliberation and decision on Pakistan’s role in the Yemen conflict.

A trend that has recently become all too common in the political scene of Pakistan, APCs are a way to bypass Parliament and put weight behind chosen reps and leaders of political parties instead of their elected representatives in National Assembly and Senate.

From an APC that discussed and decided to hold talks with the Taliban in 2013, to the APC in December 2014 contemplating a plan of action for dealing with the Taliban after their brazen attack on our children’s school, it seems all political and national security issues are now subject to decisions of the APC: a forum that has little democratic and no constitutional value or standing.

Proponents of APCs, mostly its participants, deem it a fruit and facet of democracy as it gathers all political parties on one platform and brings all opinions to the table. If only there was such a forum provided for in our constitution, something like a Parliament maybe.

Why call an APC when you have a Parliament in place where all political parties are represented with the weight of their voters behind them. While an APC may bring perspectives of all political parties to the table, it is a joint session of Parliament that not only brings political party perspectives but more importantly, the perspectives of various ethnic and religious groups and the entire population through their chosen representatives. Also, there is no representation for minorities or women in an APC.

These arguments against APCs are countered by its proponents – mostly its participants – with the rebuttal that an APC does not work in place of Parliament but in addition to it. And that Parliament’s main job is to legislate and not formulate policy. It is then a reasonable query that why do we need an additional forum for policy making when there is a government in place working through the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

Important internal and external security issues can be taken bypassing the Parliament, but only by the government through National Security Councils (NSC), Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) or Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS), whichever is in place. At the moment it is the Cabinet Committee on National Security. The problem with these councils and committees is a politician’s aversion to the influence and participation of “boots” in these forums. An aversion aimed to be addressed by changing the DCC into CCNS. The constitution of National Security Councils in various military regimes over our history gave it a touch of military interference and control. Such control is an irritant for politicians and hence reliance on NSC has been discouraged. But it is equally problematic when politicians, instead of strengthening the constitutional, democratic and political forum of Parliament, attempt to create new forums that have no foundation in our constitution and little democratic utility. If and when the military acts to supersede Parliament, reliance on APCs would only aid the assumption regarding Parliament’s redundancy.

Parliament is supreme as it is a significant part of the State. Military, Judiciary or executive are subservient to the State and Parliament. In this hierarchy, there is no place for, or existence of an APC. In the presence of a functioning Parliament and Cabinet Committee on National Security, reliance on an APC is unjustified, uncalled for and fruitless.

Article 63 A, that takes away the right of Parliamentarians to vote against party lines on certain importance issues, and increasing reliance on APCs will jointly render Parliament redundant. When general sense on important national issues is to be conveyed through party leaders, and voting on bills and elections in Parliament strictly in accordance with the wishes of party heads is mandatory, the Parliament practically stands neutered.

The assertion that APCs are an addition to joint sessions of Parliament automatically implies that one of the two forums is a waste of time and money. If in the interest of democracy and supremacy of constitution, one of the two forums is to be gotten rid of, it should be the APCs. Politicians should be the last to endorse the ineptness and insufficiency of a Parliament. Calling for, and holding of APCs by political leaders conveys only one message: between political parties and a government, a Parliament is unnecessary.

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