An opposition that works

Congratulations to Asad Qaiser on his election as Speaker of the national assembly. The speaker election voting pattern suggests that there were no major defections within opposition ranks which are a good omen for their unity. Asad Qaiser first act, as speaker, after completing all other formalities should be to constitute a parliamentary committee to investigate allegations of rigging and irregularities in the general elections. Foot-dragging in addressing this could result in street protests and incremental demands from the opposition parties. PTI should learn from its own past and remove the stain that they have a chori ka mandate.

In most advanced democracies there are usually a two-party system or at best three or four major parties. In the USA and UK, we have two party system while in Germany we have four major parties. In these countries, it is really easy to identify who is treasury and opposition. Their parliamentary behavior is also quite disciplined in this regard. In our country, we have over a dozen parties with a significant number of seats in parliament which is a large number. This means both government and opposition are coalitions. For instance, PTI will form a coalition with seven parties to be able to gather the numbers to elect their leader of the house who is also the PM. The opposition coalition will also be around four parties including PML N, PPP, MMA, and ANP. Another complexity is that a party may have a government in the province while sitting in opposition in the center. Such a party will find it hard to play the role of hard opposition because they need federal funds and other federal support to run an efficient provincial government.

What does all this mean? I think after experiencing the behavior of opposition in the last two parliaments it is important that it should be clearly defined what constitutes an opposition. Currently, we define a party in opposition on two bases. First, their numerical strength and second on which side of the parliament they decide to sit. I don’t think this is enough because in many instances a party has acted as part of the government while claiming to be a member of the opposition.  In the current parliament PML N, PPP, and MMA are major opposition partners, But PPP is not really acting as an opposition party rather they are neither here nor there. They are enjoying a bargaining position playing both sides to gain an advantage. PPP did not wear the black armbands and neither participated in the protest with PML N. In this situation can we call PPP as a party in opposition?

We may have to create a third category of parties that are neither in the opposition nor the government but remain in the middle. Once a party decides to be part of opposition or government then they should be bound to vote with them in the election of the leader of the house and approval of the budget. But a party should be given an option to give the notice to change its status from one side or the other during the term of the parliament.

Another issue that we need to tackle is personality centric decision making mandated by the constitution. In its present form constitution empowers two individuals PM and leader of the opposition to make decisions. This needs to change and there should be more institutional decision making because both government and opposition are large coalitions rather than a single party enterprise. In the last parliament, PPP, PTI, and MQM were main coalition partners in opposition but there was no formal institutional structure to make decisions about chairman NAB, interim etc. The leader of opposition and PM both held informal discussions with their coalition partners. But this can cause problems as the constitution does not bound them to either consult or get the consent of their coalition partners in an institutional manner.

It is important that parliament is empowered and made more efficient so that we have a platform for better legislation and hold the government accountable for its decisions. One way to achieve this objective is by redefining the composition and role of opposition.

By Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

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