New Icons of Power

In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court ruled the November 3, 2007, action as unconstitutional, but has, for now, left other issues for the Parliament to address.

By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi (Pakistan)

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Published: Tue 18 Aug 2009, 10:18 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:46 AM

With the 2007 Emergency declared as illegal, matters consequential to that act – laws enacted as ordinances under emergency rule – are now for legislators to decide within 120 days, the mandatory period after which ordinances lapse.

The Court’s priority has been to set its own house in order and it has moved expeditiously to clean its stables. Its judgment has also acknowledged the limits of the Court’s jurisdiction set by the principle of the separation of powers. Throughout the country’s checkered political history, the judiciary has repeatedly been burdened by what an astute foreign observer of judicial behaviour in Pakistan once described as “judging the state”, i.e. being called upon to arbitrate conflicts about power and authority. While the importance of judicial opinion has been recognised by governments, regimes and challengers alike, the superior courts have served as the arena for the resolution of not just constitutional but essentially political disputes.

The Supreme Court has now thrown the ball squarely in Parliament’s court, obliging the country’s legislature to review and decide not only the validity of the ordinances placed before it, but the vexed political questions raised by them. Public attention is now focused on other organs of the state, with an expectation that Parliament will match the judiciary’s display of leadership. This has renewed the debate in the media about whether Parliament will live up to this challenge. Many commentators have in recent days recalled its unedifying record in the past year and a half.

Indeed, the spirited interventions by the opposition witnessed in the last couple of days on the floor of the National Assembly had much to do with the insistence by the broadcast media for parliamentary activism as well as its expectation that executive actions will be subjected to greater scrutiny than has been the case so far. The clamour in the Assembly over the rental power projects, as well as mismanagement and corruption in key state enterprises has been entirely media-driven. This has reinforced a new phenomenon in the country’s politics: the political agenda is increasingly being set by the media, with political leaders responding to this, rather than initiating, calibrating or resetting that agenda.

This points to an important aspect of the country’s changing political dynamics: the evolving relationship between Parliament and the media. The broadcast media has increasingly been filling a political vaccum created by the lack of informed or sustained debate in Parliament. This in turn raises a question: the more the media becomes the main platform for political debate, does it supplant or supplement Parliament’s deliberative function?

Answering this question requires a consideration of the media explosion on the one hand and Parliamentary performance on the other. It is axiomatic that the broadcast media has reshaped the country’s political landscape and changed the way people think about politics, politicians and issues. Technology has opened up vast opportunities for media expansion in Pakistan as elsewhere in the world. The reach of satellite television has increased exponentially, and so has its mass audience and influence in what is, after all, a largely illiterate country.

This evolution has taken place in a setting of weak political institutions. It is this asymmetry between the electronic media’s development and that of Parliament, political parties and other organisations that sets Pakistan apart from other countries, where such disparities may exist but are not so stark. It helps to explain the more pronounced impact of the media here.In recent years broadcast journalists have taken the lead in framing political issues, (the chief justice issue being the most spectacular example), changing opinion (as on the Hadood Ordinance) and reinforcing shifts in the public mood (as for example in support for the military operation in Swat). They have also exposed abuses in society that would not have otherwise surfaced.

The media revolution has created new avenues for free expression and democratic politics. There has also been the unseemly aspect of media sensationalism and speculation that has sometimes supplanted real news, but some of this is to be expected in an early phase of growth. This needs to be checked to maintain media credibility. On balance, the electronic media has created new public space and strengthened the process of democratic accountability. It has provided the public a powerful means of leverage over the state. This has also contributed to a new relationship between the media and parliament. Given the power and reach of television, members of the government have increasingly sought to become Prime Time ministers, but have often failed to show corresponding vigour in performing their parliamentary role. The television screen has seen more substantive debate than the floor of the House. Talk shows attract more members of Parliament than the proceedings of the legislature. There is rarely any shortage of MPs ready to conquer the airwaves. The same cannot be said of parliamentary attendance, a fact reflected in the frequent lack of quorum in the House.

Parliament has also underperformed the other core function of rigorous oversight of executive conduct. At important political junctures it has managed to look irrelevant or has been reduced by the Treasury benches to a quiescent handmaiden of the executive.

Unlike other countries where the media usually reports on issues debated in Parliament, here the emerging norm is for Parliament to discuss issues raised first by the broadcast media. Parliament has consistently been slow to respond to issues that are uppermost on the public mind. Recent examples range from the power crisis, the rehabilitation of IDPs and questions over the rental power projects. The government’s attitude has been a major contributory factor for Parliament’s passive rather than active role. Parliament has been used to affirm rather than debate and to rubber stamp decisions or laws issued as ordinances.

Yet the public expects members of Parliament to live up to their multiple obligations. They have to summon their energy to check executive excesses and missteps, and hold the government to account. They also have to learn to engage with the media as a necessary supplement, and not a substitute, for their parliamentary role, so that a healthy complementarity is established. Passiveness in Parliament and verbal activism on television is not quite what their electors want from them.

There is also a difference between expressing opinions or voicing platitudes and offering and working on solutions to problems and challenges. A British legislator when elected to Parliament two centuries ago famously said to his voters that he would be their representative, not their delegate. Democracy is not just about debating. Debate is a necessary but not sufficient measure of democracy. Democracy is about making choices between policy options and finding solutions to the pressing issues of our time in order to ensure that the country is governed well and that policy-makers make informed decisions in the public interest.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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