The Condemned Heroes of Pakistan’s Democracy

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

We often find our political experts singing praises of the responsibility which political party leaders such as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari have shown in coming together over issues. While there is no denying that Pakistani politicians have certainly learned their lessons as far as preventing the suspension of the constitution is concerned, the kind of consensus that we have been seeing of late is hardly doing democracy any favors.

Some would say that veteran politician Raza Rabbani has proved to be a great hero for democracy for speaking his mind about voting against his conscience during the passage of the 21st amendment in the Senate. He is certainly a hero for democracy, but hardly for simply shedding tears when his constituents waited for him to do the right thing, at least in his view. In the end, it was his vote that would have made a difference, albeit at the cost of the seat of Chairman Senate.

But the heroes that I am talking about are the ones who are condemned and cornered by their parties and are pressured every election season to follow the party leadership. No one is opposing a little whipping every now and then, but when the Prime Minister writes to the Election Commission for suspending the membership of an MPA for voting for the Senator of another party, you know that things have gone too far. Similar is the case for constitutional amendments preventing voting against party liners.

People such as Javed Naseem of the PTI, who has been thrown out of the party for issuing dissenting statements against the alleged corruption of the party leadership (treatment of own medicine), and Wajihuzzaman of PML-N, both from the KP Provincial Assembly, are lone warriors for the fight of the rights of the individual legislator. Same goes for many more individual MPs, such as Jamshed Dasti, breaking away from their political parties for whatever reasons they had to give.

The greatest damage that the party leaders are doing to the very fragile democracy in Pakistan is to try blocking individual vote of dissent in party lines in the name of preventing corruption. Just the very mention of the expression “horse trading” triggers a knee jerk reaction from the media and the people alike, limiting the individual delegate’s choice and influence. We must remember that the claims and allegations of corruption are not its proof, and a politician who switches parties is not necessarily corrupt. The need of discouraging “horse trading” stems more out of political parties protecting their investment than looking after the interest of the people or penalizing corruption.

The greatest example of such suppression of individual legislators could be witnessed in the recently concluded Senate elections. Even though all parties try blocking independent voting within their rank and file, two have been at the forefront for proposing amendments to the Senate election procedure. PML-N and PTI were all for changing secret ballot to open show of hands, only to be blocked by the PPP & JUI-F.

While there is no harm at all in open voting, it is also important to understand the motives of the political parties supporting the proposed 22nd amendment. This is probably to discourage what little hope individual MPs have to vote for the candidate of their choice, even if they are not from the same party. What our party leaders are now happy with is the absolute consensus for passing controversial constitutional amendments and electing the Senate Chairman unopposed, as long as their orders are obeyed. Party discipline.

Actually secret ballot hardly even matters as dissenting members of the legislature are pressurized by their parties already. However, open voting works well in legislative systems where members are not threatened with suspension for voting as per their will.

In Pakistan, the entire purpose that it would serve for now would be helping the media figure out which Senators from other parties voted for Shibly Faraz, the PTI candidate for the position of Deputy Chairman Senate, over Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the cleric backed by the consensus of secular parties.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

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Post-Traumatic Stress Governance

Source: Dawn News

Source: Dawn News

The way constitutional amendments are passed in Pakistan makes you marvel at the degree of national unity we enjoy.

You would probably never see such unity among any nation in the world.

Despite speaking passionately against the ruling, not a single MP or Senator dared casting a vote against the constitution. Some even voted against their conscience.

It’s good to know that some politicians in this country take up the constitution seriously enough to consider it a matter of guilty conscience.

But the question remains. Why was not a single vote cast in the opposition of the passage of the constitutional amendment?

Why did the JI and the JUI-F boycott the voting session instead of casting a more effective nay? Did they not betray their loyal voters?

There is no doubt about the fact that the 21st constitutional amendment is a resounding insult to the judicial branch of government in Pakistan. A legally sanctioned statement making fun of its perceived inability to dispense the elusive commodity known as justice. No one is bothered.

Despite the gravity of the situation, let’s concentrate on the silver lining in this dark thunderstorm. Maybe, the government has finally made up its mind to eradicate terrorism from the country, despite all the cynical skepticism.

What if the military courts really would deliver the kind of “swift justice” that the people of this country have been waiting for? Hopefully, not the kind of swift justice that the Taliban are known for.

But why have a trial in the first place?

Or maybe there is hope because Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman believes that the bill for the constitutional amendment reflects secular thinking for linking religion with terrorism. Finally, our parliament ended up doing something secular. Though he is unaware that even many secularists are worried about that too.

Perhaps, the way constitution can be altered in Pakistan offers some distant hope for the secularists. Who knows, some day, some compromising situation would bring all the politicians together and make them all unanimously vote to remove the Islamic provisions from the constitution.

All we need is stirring a little sense of urgency for that.

Now that the constitution has been altered pretty drastically, you can only wonder what happened.

What changed so drastically after the Peshawar massacre that it required bringing about such drastic changes to the way the state worked?

How did the terrorists manage to change the way our government works? A lot of people are perplexed about the way the government, all the political parties and the military have reacted.

To others, disappointed that the civil courts keep on releasing or delaying indicting suspect terrorists, the sudden change came as a sigh of relief. This might deliver some justice, finally.

Yet harsher critics merely saw the recent government legislation using the Peshawar school attack as an excuse for imposing undemocratic constitutional measures.

Let’s just blame their destruction of the constitution on their post-traumatic stress symptoms, instead of deliberate intent to sabotage.

But let’s not take the overzealousness of our administrators for malice.

Let us judge actions instead of the intentions.

Though for some, that would make the case even worse.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Making Bad Laws Worse

Source: salon.com

Source: salon.com

I have often observed what a terrible idea making laws for a living is.

However, that is apparently what makes the world go round. But often in their bid to play their much needed part in changing the society for the better, lawmakers often tend to worsen the already terrible laws that are in force.

One of the recent examples of this has been the proposed amendments to the Pakistan Protection Ordinance 2013 by the current Federal Government.

Arguably a bad law, perhaps the PPO 2013 was not so terrible (probably because I always thought the likes of Taliban should be treated as POWs), though it is just about Pakistan’s version of the NDAA 2012. But the PPO 2014 certainly goes a step ahead in ensuring violations of personal liberty.

We are already familiar with the terrible dictatorial orders that our former Prime Ministers have issued in the not so distant past to ban YouTube. But the Federal Government is now considering a Power Conversation Bill that could ban the import of electronic appliances that consume more than a certain limit of power.

There is really no need to elaborate on the terrible lifestyle laws in Punjab imposed by CM Shehbaz Sharif, which include prohibiting flying kites and serving more than one dish in weddings. Not to mention arresting caterers for not observing wedding ceremony timings. But then again, we are entering the realm of elected dictators now.

As far as the PPO is concerned, for a change if only out of political animosity, the parties on the opposition benches put aside all their differences and opposed it with a united voice.

It is hard to disagree with them. As a matter of fact, at this point in time, I have to say that I am proud of the opposition parties. The new ordinance not only overrides many existing legal and constitutional conditions and encourages detention on government orders, but even introduces the term “internment camps”.

I am not sure if the internment camp reference was ever introduced before in the Pakistani law or no. However, this ordinance certainly is a step forward to legalize otherwise illegal detentions and even internment of certain citizens. It only sounds like a new low for the liberty of Pakistani citizens, despite the security situation.

Despite fierce resistance, the treasury benches passed the ordinance on a party line vote in the House, not that the individual members have much of a choice. But since PPP controls the Senate, it could possibly defeat the bill there, since the party so passionately opposes it.

But the citizens of Pakistan are not always so lucky. For the sake of convenience, let us not discuss the multitude of discriminatory laws passed by the parliament anyway.

It is not just about Pakistan actually. Legislators obsessed with constantly changing the society for the better anywhere are arguably a continuous threat to individual liberty of the citizens. And we see this idea in action everyday.

Making bad laws worse.

Let’s conclude this post with an age old liberty cliché that is as true now as it was in the eighteenth century and the eons before. It was encouraging to see a few liberals endorsing the same quote in Pakistan recently.

Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.

                                                                                                                                         – Benjamin Franklin

Changing the Rules

Source: Gary Cameron: Reuters - Business Insider

Source: Gary Cameron: Reuters – Business Insider

In response to the Republican filibuster of President Obama’s nominees for the DC circuit Court of Appeal judges, apart from record filibusters, the US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) used the simple majority to change the Senate rule requiring a filibustered nomination to be passed by 60 votes.

On November 21, 2013, the historic motion passed 52-48 simply majority votes in a 55 member Democrat-controlled Senate with 1 independent, ending an old rule that ensures protecting the minority party in this case.

3 Democrats went against party lines to vote against the call, including Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). I consider these three senators heroes and wise in their judgement indeed.

I am disappointed with the vote of the only independent senator joining the Democrats in this majoritarian ruling, who has actually participated in a filibusters before, and may know a thing or two about the ills of giving carte blanche to the majority party.

Of course, both parties blamed each other for going far enough to bring about this measure. But at the end of the day, it is the Democratic initiative that is the worse of the two, as it goes against the very spirit of the institution of the US Senate. The terrible part is people on both left and right are only advocating going much further than this, which makes you wonder how little regard they have for such measures that are meant to check absolute power.

Probably no one has described the rule change maneuver called “nuclear option” more clearly, comprehensively, passionately and articulately than Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Here is what he had to say, and I second and endorse every single word.

It is appalling that some short sighted and authoritarian leaning commentators on the left are celebrating this measure as a political victory, because it really is a common, non-partisan loss for democracy.

Sadly, despite the excessive Republican filibusters and its alleged abuse, the Democratic party and President Barack Obama have only laid bare their authoritarian mindset by supporting this measure, which may appear to be democratic but is majoritarian and contrary to the spirit of the Senate and the function of the bicameral legislature. Particularly appalling because of the views of Democrat senators, including Barack Obama (D-IL), Harry Reid (D-NV) and Joe Biden (D-DE) against such an action in a Republican controlled Senate in 2005. Even though criticized by his own ranks, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared the more responsible of the two leaders, at least on this day.

While the constitution may provide for it, I would not hesitate to term this measure as leaning toward being undemocratic and authoritarian. And as John McCain put it, it was a sad day, for the system of government that makes America great. Especially for me, who looks up to democracy in America, living in a party leadership controlled dictatorship disguised as parliamentary democracy, with hideous provisions such as the 14th Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution.

Why present an executive nomination in Senate for voting anyway, you would ask. It is merely an instrument of obstruction.

You just don’t change the rules when they do not fit your needs and call it fairness.

The Launching Ceremony of 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls

Source: UNWOMEN/DilSeJoKehtiHai

Source: UNWOMEN/DilSeJoKehtiHai

On November 28, 2012, the launching ceremony of 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Girls was held in Islamabad by UNWOMEN and the Ministry of Human Rights. I happened to cover the event on social media with a team led by Tazeen Javed and including Shiraz Hassan and Usama Khilji, under the directions of Faisal Kapadia. The event was a part of the UNiTE campaign initiated by the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon in 2008 that is meant to spread awareness against gender-based violence. The campaign itself aims to raise awareness of the issue, particualarly among men.

Several government figures participated in the event, including Begum Shehnaz Wazir Ali, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Human Rights, Shaigan Sharif Malik, the Secretary Ministry of Human Rights, Ghazala Gola, the Baluchistan Minister for Minorities and Women’s Development, Sitara Ayaz, the Khyber Pakhtunkwa Minster for Social Welfare, Farzana Yakub, the AJK Minister for Social Welfare and Women’s Development and Dr. Nafisa Shah, the Head of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. All of them reiterated the government’s commitment to bring the necessary social change to end violence against women and girls through legislation and its implementation.

The main focus of the event this time around was social media. The campaign has its social media face in “Dil Se Jo Kehti Hai“, which has its own facebook page and twitter account. In that relation, Natasha Kemal and Farieha Aziz presented how social media can be effectively used to report incidents of violence against women and girls and how it is an effective tool to reach the policymakers. They also emphasized its role and relevance to activism and how it can make a difference. The event also featured a brief exclusive screening of Samar Minallah’s documentary “We Are All Malalas!” about education of girls in Swat.

UNWomen OIC Lena Lindberg and the UN Resident Coordinator Timmo Pakkala also spoke at the event. They found it heartening to see all the Pakistani government officials participating in the event and showing their commitment to end violence against women and girls. In the end, a group discussion was held to brainstorm ideas for mobilizing social change. While everyone was pretty clear about the legislation, the experts were more or less at a loss on how to actually bring about the social change that they want to see. Sorry if that sounds like an oversimplification.

And then again, there was the usual obsession with correcting people’s and media’s morals as per their ideals which I find so widespread among activists and which really puts me off most of the time.

As I walked out of the hotel conference hall with a smoking Shiraz Hassan under the steel grey rainy skies of Islamabad, I simply hoped that the Senate would let all the reasonable legislation protecting the rights of women pass and that we could find a way to break down the walls of social conservatism, which is the real enemy of men and women of Pakistan more than any moral degradation or anything else.