By reducing the tenure of assemblies by 20 percent, we can increase the sense of being accountable and consequently the efficiency of elected government by the same ratio, at least in theory
A parliamentary committee headed by Senator Raza Rabbani is working these days to recommend changes in the 1973 constitution. However, one area is likely to escape the attention of its members and that is the tenure of the assemblies. A cursory glance at the history of Pakistan, especially on the period following the death of Ziaul Haq, will bring home that five-year tenure of the assemblies does not suit our peculiar circumstances at all. Democratic traditions have not taken root in society yet, and as soon as an elected government takes over, those belonging to the opposition benches start becoming restless. Anti-democratic elements within the establishment, too, keep a close look on the whole situation and send these governments packing whenever it suits them best. However, it is not the opposition and the establishment alone who are to be blamed; the sitting governments are equally responsible for such unsavoury interventions. The truth is that those who are elected to high governmental offices, on finding the next general elections five years away, become lax and do not give output at the required pace. The masses therefore start becoming disillusioned by the system and anti-democratic forces then take over without much resistance from any quarter. Add to this the peculiar psyche of our public. Instead of vying for continuation of the system, our countrymen, the majority of whom are uneducated or unaware of the virtues of democratic dispensations, start waiting for a change sometimes merely for the thrill of it.
The aforementioned reasons, in varying degrees, resulted in four general elections taking place in quick succession after the demise of Ziaul Haq. Even the present PPP government has hardly spent two years in office, yet we have started hearing calls for mid-term elections from Imran Khan and the like. There is a likelihood that these voices would become louder in the days to come and one would not be very surprised if even Nawaz Sharif, who has repeatedly asserted that his shoulders are not available for any undemocratic change, starts asking for the same.
In the given scenario, why should we not approach the matter in an unbiased manner and consider reducing the duration of the assemblies from five to four years? By reducing the tenure of assemblies by 20 percent, we can increase the sense of being accountable and consequently the efficiency of elected governments by the same ratio, at least in theory, as there is a direct correlation between the efficiency of governments and the expiry of their term. The farther the expiry date, the more lax or laid back a government becomes.
Another benefit that is likely to accrue by decreasing the tenure of the assemblies is that the opposition as well as the general public would be less restless since they would not find elections too far away. Going by the previous analogy, theoretically, people would be 20 percent more patient than they are under the present circumstances.
A four-year tenure for the assemblies would not be a novel idea as the same is being practised successfully in many countries. Based on different criteria, different countries have a claim of being the oldest democracy of the world. Since democracy was introduced for the first time in Athens around 500 BC, Greece claims to be the oldest democracy. Iceland has a legislative assembly since 930 AD and on this basis it claims to be the oldest democracy. The United States has its own claim. According to the Americans, the democracy introduced by their forefathers in 1776 was in line with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. New Zealand too claims to be the oldest democracy as it was the first country that adopted universal suffrage in 1893. Without going into the merits of the claim of each of these countries, one thing is common in all of them. In none of these countries are elections held at five year intervals. In Greece, Iceland and United States, elections are held every four years. New Zealand has gone a step even further as elections to its legislative assembly are held every three years. Keeping in view these most successful models of democracy across the world, and learning from its own history and experience, Pakistan can too adopt a four-year tenure for its assemblies.
Having said this, it is not likely that the PPP government would easily accept any proposal that would reduce its tenure by one year. Its leadership should, however, rise above narrow personal interests and do whatever is more beneficial for the system as well as the country. They should also realise that even though they are sitting on the treasury benches currently, someday they too would have to sit on the opposition benches and would be benefited by a shorter duration of the assemblies then in the same way in which the opposition is going to be benefited by the change today. Besides, why should PPP leaders be afraid of early elections? They are in the driving seat at present and are therefore better placed to serve the masses as compared to other parties and, consequently, win the next elections even if they take place one year prior to their actual schedule. It is, however, another thing that its leaders may have a fear in their heart of hearts that they lack due commitment and capabilities and are therefore likely to lose the next elections. One hopes that this is not the case and they would take the proposal in good spirit.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org