The 17th November 2021 would go down in the history of Pakistan’s so-called democratic governance as yet another manifestation of an abysmal story of rule of law and civilian supremacy. The scenes in the parliament were reminiscent of many such duels of the past. The outcome was known to all those who have had some knowledge of or interest in the attempts made over the years for restoration of an elusive democracy. Few were surprised by the ‘victory’ of the ruling class. Few would question the legality of the process or the element of external support for a government that looked increasingly threatened just a few days ago.
Presenting as many as 33 bills before the house — in fact both houses in a joint sitting — and getting them passed without any debate was unprecedented even in Pakistan’s broken system of governance. Ignoring the regular procedure of each bill being presented for debate separately in the lower and upper houses of Parliament was also a novel way of pushing through controversial bills. Knowing that the bill relating to the electronic voting machines (EVMs) was fiercely opposed by the opposition groups, it was unjust to seek passage without any debate. The motivation was obvious: the ruling party was eyeing at the next general election and the local bodies election.
Prior to the vote there was hectic lobbying by the government to muster the required numbers. Whatever possible — pressure, coercion, intimidation — was resorted to in order to persuade the government allies to cast vote in favour of the bills. One PTI MNA from Karachi, who has distanced himself from the party for quite some time, was pretty vocal. When asked why he turned up to vote for the government despite his deep differences with the ruling party, he was quick to remark, “I have not come voluntarily. I have been brought… by those who normally come in handy on such occasions.” His bold remarks were enough to reveal the role played by the external forces in guaranteeing the success of the ruling party in the passage of the bills.
The opposition’s stance on the parliamentary bills was clear. It questioned the legality of the government, alleging that the PTI came to power with the connivance of powerful forces. The opposition alleges pre-poll and poll-day rigging in favour of the Imran Khan-led party, especially citing the “malfunctioning” of the Result Transmission System in Karachi in the 2018 general elections. It also presents the recent bye-election in Daska — where the state machinery was used to rig the election in favour of the PTI, according to an Election Commission inquiry report — as evidence that the legislation for introducing EVMs is meant to temper the results of the next general election. How can then the opposition take the ruling party’s word that the new mechanism is meant to ensure fair polls?
However, there’s isn’t much that a divided opposition can do to come in the way of the implementation of the new laws. If they burry their difference, they can emerge as a formidable force to counter the government. They have so far been unable to ride on the resentment of the masses over the rising cost of living, increasing poverty and growing unemployment apart from the deteriorating state of institutions, declining educational standards and a faltering healthcare system. Unfortunately for the masses, the opposition lacks a leader in its midst — one who could muster support for a national movement to change the governance systems and ensure that institutions operate within their constitutionally mandated roles.
The ruling party is taking full advantage of this void to prolong its rule and even take it beyond 2023. If the opposition wants to muster mass support for a change, they will have to gather at a single platform, of the PDM, and reactivate it under a new framework of goals and strategy.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2021.