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18th Amendment and Clause 4

12 April, 2010

By Jalees Hazir


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It might come across as cynical to advise restraint while celebrating the smooth passage of the 18th Amendment from the National Assembly. Those writing eulogies for the political leadership over this significant achievement are bound to get miffed at any suggestion to tone down the celebratory chatter. However, it is necessary to do so in order to ensure that these wide-ranging and important constitutional reforms bear the fruit that they are supposed to. There are generic problems in our political culture that militate against any democratisation and as if to provide a tool to these retrogressive forces, the pro-democracy amendment has been embedded with a Trojan horse.

To be fair, appreciation must precede any criticism and reservations. And if there’s anyone who deserves undiluted appreciation for his ability, sagacity and sincerity, it is Raza Rabbani whose role in the entire exercise cannot be emphasised enough. He can be credited with single-handedly improving the public perception of parliamentarians and the political parties they represent. In an environment where the parties and their representatives seldom rise above their petty interests and are seen fighting amoral turf-wars all the time, he brought them round to discussing matters of national interest at length, to thrashing out their differences in a democratic way and to building consensus around the reforms. Surely, the Reforms Committee would never have achieved what it has without his dedication, patience, sobering presence and leadership.

On the whole, the constitutional reforms included in the 18th Amendment are a step in the right direction. While there may be discussion and differences of opinion on details and implementation, it is important to recognise the positive thrust of the reforms. The amendment restores the parliamentary structure and cuts the bloated office of an indirectly elected president to size. It addresses the demands for decentralisation and provincial autonomy and makes important appointments of superior court judges and the chief election commissioner more democratic and transparent. There are other positive features as well, viewed by analysts and constitutional experts as useful for pushing the political system in a democratic direction. So there are many good reasons to celebrate.

At the same time, there is at least one reason to worry about: the anti-democracy Trojan horse embedded in a pro-democracy amendment. Amidst all the celebration, little attention has been paid to a small but important clause that has been axed in the amendment. It was reported that the amendment, after it is passed by the Senate, will repeal Clause 4 of Article 17 that makes elections within political parties mandatory. Obviously, the decision to repeal the said clause was not taken because it was introduced by General Musharraf as a number of changes to the constitution brought about by him have been adopted by the broad spectrum of political parties included in the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms. So what is it that they have against the doomed Clause 4?

It’s interesting that while we had the opportunity to read and hear much about so many other issues being discussed in the Reforms Committee, nothing was ever leaked about Clause 4. During the long process of finalising the amendment, the political parties included in the committee often put their views across on a host of issues being otherwise discussed outside the media glare, whether it was provincial autonomy or renaming of Pukhtoonkhwa, the appointment of judges or presidential powers. But we did not hear a squeak on Clause 4. Is it because all the parties were unanimous in doing away with it? Do they deserve to be contesting elections in a democracy? Obviously, there’s a huge disconnect.

The problem with doing away with Clause 4 is that it undermines the institution of Parliament whose supremacy the new amendment is supposed to ensure. The parliamentary form of government that the amendment aims to restore depends upon strong and democratic political parties, where members get to elect their party office-bearers and even candidates for their constituency. Ordinary party members are able to influence party policies and rise to prominence because of their political views and work. A Parliament built atop such democratic political processes is truly representative and that is why it can lay any claims to being supreme.

In our case, personality cults pose as political parties and party office-bearers are nominated from the top, party tickets for elections are given in closed-door sessions under the direct supervision of the cult-leader and his nominated heavy-weights. Party policy is hostage to the whims of the cult-leader. Is it any wonder that our Parliament is full of opportunists and sycophants who are oblivious of the concerns and interests of their constituents but know very well what their bosses want? How representative can such a Parliament be? It is a shame that our political parties, which do not tire of espousing democracy and oppose military rule because of its un-representative character, are so allergic to democracy within their parties.

Other than this black spot in the bright sun of the 18th Amendment, there is another reason to be cautious. Political structures are a foundation for governance, and any improvement in our constitution only creates the possibility of a complimentary improvement in governance. At the end of the day, it is the quality of individuals at the helm of affairs that makes the real difference. We have the example of Raza Rabbani before us, and how his selfless hard work has produced good results.

More and more, the mainstream political parties are losing relevance to democracy in the country, founded as they are on undemocratic foundations. They reward sycophants and yes-men and do not value men of integrity who stand by their convictions and are not driven by petty selfish motives. Retention of Clause 4 could have played a role in changing this cultish culture of our political parties. One hopes the Senate would send the amendment back to the National Assembly to reconsider the repeal of Clause 4. That would really be a reason to celebrate.

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