By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
On Thursday, 29th November, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government completes its first 100 days in office. Prompted by the agenda set by his Pakistan Tehreef-e-Insaaf (PTI) party for the period — as unveiled by Imran Khan prior to the election and based on its vigorous follow-up after he assumed office — wide-spread assessments are being made at various levels within the government, media, and political parties about the success or otherwise of the PTI thus far.
At the center of this assessment are the six themes which embody Khan’s agenda and range from governance, strong federation, economy, agriculture and water conservation, social services, and national security. A majority of the work pledged by the government in the first 100 days was related to conceptualizing a blueprint for reforms in these sectors.
Nearly 33 task forces and committees were constituted for this purpose whose main role was to prepare about 60 policy documents. Several of these documents will need to be transformed into legislation — and introduced in the national and provincial legislatures for approval — before the authorities can begin the arduous process of implementation.
However, the PTI does not command a majority in the National Assembly (NA) and would be able to form the government only with the help of seven other parties and independent members. Additionally, the Senate, which is the other chamber of parliament, is dominated by parties that are opposed to the PTI.
Passing laws in the two houses of the parliament and in three out of four provinces will be a daunting task, with a varying degree of difficulty in each legislature. At each step, it seems that the PTI will be required to go through a frustrating process of reaching a deal with its allies — and in some cases with the opposition as well — if it wants its reform agenda to be converted into acts of law.
Despite the compromises, the content of the laws may also need to be tempered to accommodate the point of views of all other parties. All this is a part of the democratic system but one that can be frustrating and slow, nevertheless.
Nothing demonstrates the legislative challenges to be faced by the PTI in the near future as vividly as its inability to constitute standing committees in the NA. At the heart of the NA’s business, just like any other democratic legislature, are about 30 to 40 standing committees. Each committee, comprising roughly about 20 members, reflects the party-wise composition of the assembly.
The ruling parties and the opposition usually strike an agreement based on the committees which the opposition will be allowed to head. The number of such opposition-led committees generally depends on the strength of the opposition in the NA. Since the opposition constitutes about 45 percent of the membership, it would bargain to get the chairmanship of at least one-fourth to one-third of the total committees. Some committees are considered more important than the others and a tough bargain is expected in order to secure the chairmanship of prestigious committees such as defense, finance, foreign relations, law, and interior.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is considered the most powerful and has members from both the NA and the Senate. In most of the parliamentary forms of governments around the world, including in Britain and India, the convention is to allow the PAC to be headed by a member of the opposition. Pakistan, too, adopted this tradition in 2008 and reserved the seat for the leader of the opposition, but without incorporating this convention in the assembly rules. The PTI government has refused to give the PAC chairmanship to the leader of the opposition on the pretext that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader can’t do justice in scrutinizing the accounts of its past government.
The opposition has threatened to boycott all the committees if the PAC seat is not given to its leader. This has led to a deadlock and despite the fact that the NA’s rules require the committees to be elected within 30 days of the election of the prime minister, there has been no progress made on that front despite the completion of a 100 days.
An agreement on the constitution of the standing committees is the first serious test of the PTI-led coalition in the parliament. This feat is not impossible if both the government and the opposition demonstrate the same flexibility as they did in the formation of the parliamentary committee for probing the alleged election irregularities.
The government, in that case, had accepted the opposition’s demand that members of the committee be divided equally between the ruling and opposition parties and, in turn, the opposition accepted the government’s demand for the chairperson to be from the ruling party. If democracy has to move forward and the PTI has to advance its legislative agenda, it has to overcome the challenges facing the formation of the standing committees in the same spirit before it is too late.
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.)