Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf secured majority in the 25th July elections. They went on to form the coalition government in only the second consecutive transfer of the power in the 70 years history of Pakistan’s existence. Unfortunate but at least it is happening now and hopefully it will continue and one fine day the democracy will mature in its true form. While addressing the nation after winning the elections and afterwards Imran Khan has made some very tall claims and promises and set some towering goals. One of them was that he will present himself for a question-answer session twice a month in the assembly. Good initiative but it is coming from a person who did not attend more than 20 sessions of the assembly as member of opposition and who hurled abuses at the parliament. Nonetheless, let’s give it to the new beginning.
Unfortunately, Imran Khan was not the only who cared less to grace his presence at the assembly session and unapologetically made a statement about it on the floor of the respected House. According to a report compiled by FAFEN (Free and Fair Election Network) in the last five years the average attendance of the legislators declined by 13% over the last five years. Only five sittings were attended by 301 or more legislators and 42 were attended by 251 to 300 legislators. Another interesting fact is that the average attendance on midweek days was higher than the first and last working day of the week. Based on FAFEN’s observation 345 out of 468 sittings commenced and concluded with less than one-fourth of the House membership. Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Muhammad Asif of PML-N did not attend 318 and 282 sittings out of 468 respectively. Even the ex Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seldom attended the session. These and the ones which are not mentioned here are not really good numbers performance wise. The state of the Provincial assemblies is even more alarming whereby some members leave the session after marking their attendance and no one questions them.
Legislator’s attendance and active participation during parliamentary proceedings is a fundamental indicator of representation and safeguarding citizen’s interests. Moreover, it also ensures that public representatives are keenly overseeing the government’s performance. The reason of this careless behaviour of the legislators is at least beyond me. They’re paid out of the pockets of people of Pakistan and yet they don’t care to show a tiny bit of responsibility. This is unreasonable in so many ways. Every time you look at the highlights of the session there are only a few people there. Recently during the first session of the new National Assembly, where Imran Khan was voted as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto left after making their speeches leaving the leader from Baluchistan to raise his points to an almost empty House. How fair was that? On the contrary if you happen to see the same session of the neighbours India the house is mostly full. Hardly anyone misses out of the parliamentary session in England unless they’re on official duty or sick. Why cannot our elected representative show some respect to our votes and attend the sessions?
The process of marking attendance for the legislators is quite simple. All they have to do is mark their attendance on a register in the House. This remind me of the school days where the teacher use to mark mine and other students attendance on a register. Sometimes we used to mark the attendance ourselves as well. One can imagine how easy it is to escape the session by marking a proxy like everyone must have done during the school days. The daily attendance records are updated on the Assembly website following each sitting. Any requests by the legislators for leave of absence from any sitting are voted upon in the House. The legislators desiring leave of absence make a written application to the Speaker who puts the question to the House. Conventionally, the Speaker reads out the requests and without seeking the vote declares that the leave is granted. Interestingly, a member may lose seat if he remains absent without the leave of the Assembly for 40 consecutive sittings. However, this rule has never been applied in the parliamentary history of Pakistan. Ideally it should have been. The weak enforcement of this rule has lead to the increase in the number of absentees from the Assembly sittings. Our legislators should be mature enough to understand their responsibility but still they’re human and need check on them – a mix of carrot and stick.
The incumbent government needs to address this issue on earnest basis. The rules are there but they need some tweaking and strict application. They should attend the sessions and there should be no two way about it. The percentage of attendance must get better for everything else to improve. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the ruling party, has a task on its hand to ensure not only do they attend but also make the opposition do the same. Some of the suggestions are listed below:
- Along with the record of register the NA Secretariat should also keep a track of actual time spent by the members in the proceedings. Just a mark on the register is not an indication of participation. All this information should be publicly available so we can judge the performances of the people we have voted.
- The register should be replaced with biometric thumb impressions for both in and out time. This should be linked with the website for automatic updates so there won’t by any chance of an escape or a proxy. It will help in maintaining the record of the time spent as well and will give an indication of the seriousness of legislators in the matters relating to people and country at large.
- A penalty must be imposed on the negligent legislators who remain absent from the Assembly sittings or their participation or floor time is not up to the mark, which must be defined. It should not be nominal or a token amount that would not matter to them. It has to be a reasonable amount and should be made public.
- The number of consecutive absent days should be reduced to 20 days instead of the current 40 days. Constitutional Amendment may be required to allow for automatic disqualification of members who remain absent for 20 days without compelling reasons allowed through a vote in the House. These directives should be made part of the Rule of Procedure and Conduct of Business in an effort to improve the attendance of legislators.
In the end it is hoped that the attitude and concerns of the legislators, designated with responsibility of representation of the people of respective constituencies, will change for good and the discipline in attendance will lay the foundation.
Source: Fafen’s report on Attendance and Quorum in National Assembly of Pakistan June, 2013 – March, 2018 http://fafen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/FAFEN-National-Assembly-Attendance-Report-2018-14th-National-Assembly-Open-Parliament-Pakistan.pdf