Equality of provinces in National Assembly

A key issue has mostly escaped the attention of NA

WEEKEND MAGAZINE (April 17 2010): The 18th constitutional amendment is likely to be passed by the parliament soon. No doubt, it has several good points vis-à-vis democracy and provincial autonomy but one main issue – that of disparity between the federating units in the ‘king-maker’ National Assembly of Pakistan – has escaped the attention of the political analysts as well as the members of the Raza Rabbani-led committee.

I think it is essential for strengthening the federation that there should be equality of opportunity for all the federating units within the national assembly, though they may retain their respective number of seats therein. The component units of a federation should have equal influence and opportunity to appoint the federal executive authority – the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

That financial and political autonomy of the provinces is the only way to remove the sense of deprivation and alienation of the smaller provinces, no one will contest but the question is how that will be achieved and what are the other steps needed to be taken in this regard.

The constitution of Pakistan has three power-lists – the federal, provincial and concurrent. The federal list specifies the sphere of the federal government while the provincial list narrates the areas where provinces can work on their own. The concurrent list spells out the combined domains of the two but it too has been utilised mostly by the former.

In its present shape, the CoP is more a constitution of a unitary state than of a federation – all powers are vested in the centre and provinces have no autonomy. Hence demands for abolition of concurrent list. But even the abolition of the concurrent list, as decided by the constitutional committee, won’t suffice because it touches minor issues such as the withdrawing or giving certain departments from or to the provinces. Something more concrete will have to be done to make the system and constitution look more just and to discourage the secessionist tendencies and growing discontent in smaller provinces.

Most of the federations like Pakistan, having parliamentary form of government, have two chambers of parliament. The lower chamber -National Assembly in Pakistan’s case – is the powerful of the two whose members are directly elected by the people while those of the upper chamber – Senate in Pakistan – are indirectly elected.

The Senate of Pakistan is there with equal representation for the provinces. But it not only has insufficient financial powers but also has no role in election of the Federal Government though it is rewarded with some ministerial slots in the cabinet. Most of the powers are at present vested in the National Assembly. It has the sole authority to elect the Federal Government and has financial powers. For that matter, all the four provinces should have equal representation and equal opportunity in it.

But the problem is that its membership is based on population and Punjab being the biggest province by population, enjoys an absolute 55 percent majority in NA while the combined seats of the other three provinces, the federal capital and FATA accounts for 45 percent of the body’s members. So, if a party sweeps elections there, it can form its government in the centre even if the electorate in other three provinces out-rightly reject it in elections as the combined members of the three smaller provinces form only 36 percent of its membership. At present, Punjab has great leverage over other provinces in the formation of the Federal Government.

One wonders if it is anything else than rewarding a component of the federation, Punjab, for its increase in population vis-a-vis other provinces. There have been demands to reduce the clout of Punjab, it should be divided into two or three provinces. But that will hardly work. The reason: the eastern region of the country that comprises Punjab will continue to have the upper hand in election of the Federal Government and Prime Minister of Pakistan.

When Punjab alone could suffice for capturing the highest slot at Islamabad, every party necessarily and naturally will try to please and win over its electorate and neglecting other less effective regions. It explains why there is frequent resort to Governor-rule, palace intrigues and vote of no-confidence to snatch the throne in Punjab.

This doesn’t mean that the financial share of Punjab, that has the biggest population and therefore having great need of development expenditure on health, education and other social sectors should be curtailed. It is simply neither desired nor will be deemed as just. Neither this writer wants any reduced membership for Punjab. It should retain the present number of seats in the National Assembly.

But my question is why there is great disparity in the treatment of each province in the National Assembly? Why can’t all provinces have the same authority, power and role in electing the Federal Government?

There is already a precedent in our political system for that. In the election of the President of Pakistan and the Senate members, all the four provinces have equal share, the difference of their strength in parliament notwithstanding. Why this can’t be applied in the election of Prime Minister, who is the actual executive authority in the federation of Pakistan?

It is time the parliament amends the constitution and the draft of the 18th amendment bill in this regard. The votes of all provinces in the national assembly should have equal force and weight in the election of the Federal Government.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2010

About Tahir Ali Khan (Official)
I am an academic, columnist, and a social worker.

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