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Four-year tenure for assemblies — by Barrister Dr Ehtasham Anwar

By reducing the tenure of assemblies by 20 percent, we can increase the sense of being accountable and consequently the efficiency of elected government by the same ratio, at least in theory

A parliamentary committee headed by Senator Raza Rabbani is working these days to recommend changes in the 1973 constitution. However, one area is likely to escape the attention of its members and that is the tenure of the assemblies. A cursory glance at the history of Pakistan, especially on the period following the death of Ziaul Haq, will bring home that five-year tenure of the assemblies does not suit our peculiar circumstances at all. Democratic traditions have not taken root in society yet, and as soon as an elected government takes over, those belonging to the opposition benches start becoming restless. Anti-democratic elements within the establishment, too, keep a close look on the whole situation and send these governments packing whenever it suits them best. However, it is not the opposition and the establishment alone who are to be blamed; the sitting governments are equally responsible for such unsavoury interventions. The truth is that those who are elected to high governmental offices, on finding the next general elections five years away, become lax and do not give output at the required pace. The masses therefore start becoming disillusioned by the system and anti-democratic forces then take over without much resistance from any quarter. Add to this the peculiar psyche of our public. Instead of vying for continuation of the system, our countrymen, the majority of whom are uneducated or unaware of the virtues of democratic dispensations, start waiting for a change sometimes merely for the thrill of it.

The aforementioned reasons, in varying degrees, resulted in four general elections taking place in quick succession after the demise of Ziaul Haq. Even the present PPP government has hardly spent two years in office, yet we have started hearing calls for mid-term elections from Imran Khan and the like. There is a likelihood that these voices would become louder in the days to come and one would not be very surprised if even Nawaz Sharif, who has repeatedly asserted that his shoulders are not available for any undemocratic change, starts asking for the same.

In the given scenario, why should we not approach the matter in an unbiased manner and consider reducing the duration of the assemblies from five to four years? By reducing the tenure of assemblies by 20 percent, we can increase the sense of being accountable and consequently the efficiency of elected governments by the same ratio, at least in theory, as there is a direct correlation between the efficiency of governments and the expiry of their term. The farther the expiry date, the more lax or laid back a government becomes.

Another benefit that is likely to accrue by decreasing the tenure of the assemblies is that the opposition as well as the general public would be less restless since they would not find elections too far away. Going by the previous analogy, theoretically, people would be 20 percent more patient than they are under the present circumstances.

A four-year tenure for the assemblies would not be a novel idea as the same is being practised successfully in many countries. Based on different criteria, different countries have a claim of being the oldest democracy of the world. Since democracy was introduced for the first time in Athens around 500 BC, Greece claims to be the oldest democracy. Iceland has a legislative assembly since 930 AD and on this basis it claims to be the oldest democracy. The United States has its own claim. According to the Americans, the democracy introduced by their forefathers in 1776 was in line with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. New Zealand too claims to be the oldest democracy as it was the first country that adopted universal suffrage in 1893. Without going into the merits of the claim of each of these countries, one thing is common in all of them. In none of these countries are elections held at five year intervals. In Greece, Iceland and United States, elections are held every four years. New Zealand has gone a step even further as elections to its legislative assembly are held every three years. Keeping in view these most successful models of democracy across the world, and learning from its own history and experience, Pakistan can too adopt a four-year tenure for its assemblies.

Having said this, it is not likely that the PPP government would easily accept any proposal that would reduce its tenure by one year. Its leadership should, however, rise above narrow personal interests and do whatever is more beneficial for the system as well as the country. They should also realise that even though they are sitting on the treasury benches currently, someday they too would have to sit on the opposition benches and would be benefited by a shorter duration of the assemblies then in the same way in which the opposition is going to be benefited by the change today. Besides, why should PPP leaders be afraid of early elections? They are in the driving seat at present and are therefore better placed to serve the masses as compared to other parties and, consequently, win the next elections even if they take place one year prior to their actual schedule. It is, however, another thing that its leaders may have a fear in their heart of hearts that they lack due commitment and capabilities and are therefore likely to lose the next elections. One hopes that this is not the case and they would take the proposal in good spirit.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad and can be reached at ehtashams@hotmail.com

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  • A flawed charter?

    Monday, January 11, 2010
    Asif Ezdi

    The Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform (PCCR) was set up in June in response to the demand for constitutional amendments agreed in the Charter of Democracy (CoD). The principal constitutional changes called for in the Charter were the restoration of the powers of the prime minister as they existed before the military coup of 1999, the repeal of the president’s power to dissolve the National Assembly and the removal of the third-term ban for the prime minister. Another major demand in the Charter, which has been somewhat obscured in the heated discussion on the question of the president’s powers, was the abolition of the Concurrent List.

    The Charter was signed at a time when the leaders of the PPP and PML-N were out of power and in exile and Musharraf was firmly in the saddle. Now that Musharraf has been deposed, the PPP’s two-term prime minister is no more and the PPP leader is in the Presidency, the party’s priorities have changed. While paying lip service to the Charter, the PPP, and especially its co-chairman, have been trying to stall progress on the implementation of the Charter. The establishment of the PCCR was in fact part of these delaying tactics.

    The root of the problem lies in Article 248 of the Constitution, which gives immunity to the president from criminal proceedings. After the parliamentary elections in 2008, Zardari had the option, as the leader of the largest party, to become either president or prime minister. He chose to become president because this office gives immunity from prosecution for corruption. If the president did not enjoy this privilege under the Constitution, Zardari would no doubt have become prime minister and the CoD would have been quickly implemented, at least as far as the restoration of the prime minister’s powers is concerned.

    After the Supreme Court judgment nullifying the NRO, Zardari needs this protection more than ever to avoid having to face the accountability courts. He also fancies himself as being under threat from the military and is not willing to part with the power to appoint the army chief. In Zardari’s way of thinking, this is one of the few remaining cards he still has in his hands. So if you have been waiting for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, don’t hold your breath for it.

    It must be said at the same time that the Charter of Democracy is hardly the panacea for our constitutional problems that the PML-N makes it out to be. It was prepared in a hurry by two exiled political leaders who did not have the benefit of consultation with a broader spectrum of opinion. Among its more obvious flaws are the proposed new procedure for the appointment of judges of the superior judiciary and the provision for a constitutional court.

    The Charter also suffers from some not-so-obvious flaws, such as the proposed abolition of Article 58(2)(b). The abolition would certainly guarantee a five-year term of office to our parliamentarians in which they would be free to enjoy the perks and powers of their office without being held accountable till the next election. But it would deprive the country of a much-needed safety valve to defuse political crises involving confrontation or deadlock between different institutions of state or in other serious emergencies.

    It is arguable that if the president had had the power to dissolve the National Assembly during the anti-Bhutto agitation following the parliamentary elections in March 1977, the military coup led by Zia would not have taken place and the country would have been spared much of the havoc that his dictatorship wreaked on the country.

    True, the power to dissolve the National Assembly is liable to misuse. But the answer lies in placing political checks on its use. This could be achieved by introducing the requirement that a president who dissolves the National Assembly would need to get a vote of confidence from the newly elected house, failing which he would lose his office; or that a fresh election to the office of president would be held after the new house has been elected.

    The most serious flaw in the Charter of Democracy is the call for the abolition of the Concurrent List. It is clear that little serious thought was given to the profound implications of this step by the two great leaders who signed the Charter. The abolition of the Concurrent List would not add an iota to the powers of the provincial governments, but it would dismantle large parts of the federal government and deprive the federation of legislative power in many areas in which only nationwide action can be effective.

    To take just one example, if the Concurrent List is abolished, there will be no single accountability law. Each province would have to enact its own legislation to fight corruption by holders of public office and set up its own independent accountability commission. This would be a blessing for the corrupt, but can hardly be good for the country. If the aim is to strengthen provincial autonomy, the answer would lie in transferring some powers from the federal list to the Concurrent List, not in abolishing the latter.

    While Nawaz Sharif can hardly finish a sentence without swearing by the Charter of Democracy, Gilani has been speaking of implementing the Charter and restoring the 1973 Constitution in its original shape in the same breath, as if the two mean the same thing.

    To add to the confusion, the PCCR has taken upon itself the job of a wholesale review of the Constitution without any mandate from the parliament. The resolutions adopted last April by the National Assembly and the Senate under which the committee was established only authorised it to make recommendations “for the implementation of the Charter of Democracy.”

    However, under the rules of procedure adopted by it, the committee improperly gave itself also the power to propose constitutional amendments of all kinds “keeping in view the 17th Amendment, Charter of Democracy and provincial autonomy.” The committee did not stop there. It now claims the authority to propose amendments for a full overhaul of the Constitution. In our history we have known enough military coups. This must be the first coup by a parliamentary committee.

    The members of the PCCR no doubt take themselves and their job very seriously, but they also go about it in a very cavalier manner. On Jan 6 they summarily turned down a proposal for electing members of parliament on the basis of proportional representation, without bothering to seriously look at its merits. Their reasons are not difficult to make out.

    The present first-past-the-post system gives undue advantage to the larger political parties and the political dynasties of the country. If the proportional system were adopted, a more truly representative legislature would emerge but about half of the present membership of the parliament would not be sitting there. Only a few days earlier, the committee had just as quickly turned down a proposal to delete the “Islamic” disqualification clauses introduced by Zia.

    Amending the Constitution is serious business which requires thorough study and careful thought. But our political leaders, government and parliamentarians treat it as part of political gamesmanship.

    Zardari claims he is willing to surrender the powers transferred to the president under the 17th Amendment, but is actually working against it. Gilani is probably genuinely in favour of its repeal, but not even his ordinary party members pay him any heed, to say nothing of the ministers who owe their offices and loyalties to Zardari. And the members of the parliamentary committee are self-importantly but fitfully trying to overhaul the Constitution without having any mandate for the task. If anyone does not know what directionless drift in politics looks like, he should take a glance at the constitutional reform debate in Pakistan.

    The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

    http://thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=217978

  • It is human nature to fear punishment we as muslims obey rules because of fear of Jahanum .I think that not only the government but all the institutions in our country do not have any accountability and once they are in power they are answerable to no one that considerably decreases their performance and what they are supposed to deliver to the public during the tenure of their power.Being in the govt. should be considered a civil service in the true sense of the word and they should be accountable about their projects and progress on a quarterly basis and yes one thing that will increase the sense of having to show results would be decreasing their time period hoping that that will increase their efficacy.