Defection and democracy

THE National Assembly of Pakistan made history by successfully passing the first vote of no-confidence against a sitting prime minister in the country. Earlier, two attempts to unseat a prime minister — one against Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and the other against Shaukat Aziz in 2006 — had failed.

Although none of the PTI rebels took part in the voting, and the motion against prime minister Imran Khan was carried with the help of political parties that had parted ways with the PTI-led government, the subject of defections has been hotly debated in parliament, the media and at public rallies over the past few months. The debate turned even more passionate — and ugly — during the recent election of the new chief minister of Punjab, because 24 provincial assembly members belonging to the PTI voted in favour of PML-N candidate Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, clearly defying the instructions of the PTI leadership.

The PTI and its chairman, Imran Khan, have run an effective campaign against the phenomenon of defection and tried to create strong anti-defection sentiments among the public. They, however, appeared to have come down from their moral high ground when they themselves actively wooed some PML-N members of the Punjab Assembly by holding meetings with them and providing development funds in addition to other favours. It is another matter that, in the process, the PTI not only lost to PML-N in the numbers game but also deprived itself of what could otherwise have been a principled position.

The key question in the debate about defection is whether not always obeying the party’s command in making decisions as a member of parliament or a provincial assembly is illegal or immoral. While forming an opinion on the defiance of party instructions, one should dispassionately look at various aspects of parliamentary democracy and the state of democracy within our political parties. We should also be careful not to weaken whatever little democracy is available within political parties and not strengthen authoritarian tendencies in them in our one-sided zeal to curb what we call defection. We should learn to tolerate, rather respect, genuine difference of opinion within a party and not brand such an honest expression of one’s views as defection.

We should learn to tolerate genuine difference of opinion within a party.

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that our Constitution allows broad liberty to legislators to make independent judgements regarding voting on legislation or electing certain office-bearers. Despite strong populist views to the contrary, the Constitution does not prohibit legislators from exercising their independent judgement while voting during the election of president, Senate chair and deputy, and speakers and deputy speakers. It is precisely to protect the independence of the legislators that elections to these positions are prescribed in the Constitution to be held through a secret ballot. The same goes for the election of senators. Despite the hype created in the last Senate election for an open ballot, the apex court, fortunately, did not agree with the PTI, and the secrecy of the ballot was preserved.

While voting for or against a certain legislation, the Constitution does not bind legislators to necessarily vote in line with party direction except in two specific instances — a constitutional amendment bill and the money bill. In all other matters of legislation, the lawmakers are free to vote as they deem fit and there is no penalty for such independence.

There are two other types of voting in which legislators have to follow the party direction, otherwise they may lose their seats in the legislature for the remaining term. Legislators must vote for a candidate for the post of prime minister or chief minister as endorsed by the legislator’s party. The same is true while voting on a vote of confidence or a vote of no-confidence.

Even in these four distinct cases, legislators have not been barred from voting against the party line. As a plain reading of Article 63-A of the Constitution suggests, they may still vote against their party’s direction and their vote will be counted, but they will have to pay the price and that price may be losing their seat in the legislature for the remaining term.

A reference filed by the president of Pakistan seeking clarification and interpretation on various aspects of Article 63-A is, however, pending before the honourable Supreme Court, and ultimate clarity will flow from the advice of the august court.

Another aspect which should be kept in mind is that every case of difference of opinion between a legislator and his or her party is not necessarily a case of monetary gain or ‘horse trading’. There may be an odd case or two of receiving bribes but an overwhelming number of legislators develop differences with their party because either the leadership is not engaging with them or not valuing their opinion while deciding party policy or not attending to their constituency issues properly.

The last point to be kept in mind is that the state of intra-party democracy in most of our political parties is rather weak. Most of the decisions are taken by the party head or a close circle of people around him or her. Subjecting legislators to very tight party discipline would mean practically subjugating them to one individual and undermining whatever democracy is available within the parties at this point.

Having said all this, it makes a lot of sense for legislators to support their party policies and candidates but it is essential that such party policies should be formulated and candidates picked within the parties through a genuinely democratic process. The legislators’ vote should be won through a process of engagement and not through coercion.

The constitutional provisions regarding defection have evolved in Pakistan over the last 49 years and we have experimented with two extreme defection regimes. The present constitutional scheme provides a balanced regime on defection and we should respect that.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

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