Size Matters: A Case for Enlarging the Composition of Pakistan Parliament

By Syed Sharfuddin*

The structure of state governance in modern times with few exceptions comprises the executive, the legislature and the judiciary each of which are independent of each other to the extent possible according to the system of government followed in a country. Pakistan’s system of governance is parliamentary democracy modelled after the British Westminster Democracy and codified in the 1973 Constitution with all its amendments up to date.

It is said that dictatorships and oligarchies are more efficient and cost effective in delivering political governance compared to representative democracies because the former do not need to follow the requirement of consulting the people except those in position of power. But democracies by their very nature require wider public engagement and consultation. They go through a lengthy process of political debate and enact legislation through a cumbersome legislative process requiring many readings of bills and presidential assent. Their decisions, whether in cabinet or in parliament, are ideally reached by consensus and failing this, by majority vote.

The same principle applies to small and large legislatures. It is easy to enact laws and exercise oversight function by a small legislature compared to a large people’s assembly which is neither cost effective to elect, nor easy to manage and service. But just as democracy is a political necessity for the smooth governance, peace and political stability of a state, a larger legislature is also a necessity for a country, and more so in a federation, which is home to diverse ethnic, linguistic and/or religious populations and regions.

While cost may be one discouraging factor against a larger legislature, there are other mitigating factors, such as confusion and deadlock in reaching decisions due to large number of un-coordinated voices in the assembly or too many committees resulting in over-planning and fragmentation of legislative work. One way to regulate these forces  is to strike a balance and equation between four functions of legislation: 1) the method for electing representatives to parliament; 2) the rules drawn up for legislation; 3) the degree of diverse public representation in parliament; and, 4) the basis of representation through well defined constituencies and electoral quotas.

The present composition of federal parliament in Pakistan is 342 seats in the National Assembly (lower house) and 104 seats in the Senate (upper house). The 342 seats in the National Assembly are made up of 272 general seats for single-member geographical constituencies directly elected on first past the post basis; 60 reserved seats for women and 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. Against this allocation, women and minority representatives are elected through an indirect proportional representation system where each province is a single constituency for women and the whole country is a single constituency for non-Muslims. In their election, due weightage is given to political parties represented on the general seats. Women seats are allocated proportionally to political parties, which secure more than 5% vote in the national election.

In the Senate 104 seats are filled by an electoral college of members of the national and provincial assemblies . Each of the four provinces, Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber PK are allocated 23 members, comprising 14 general seats, four seats for women, four seats for technical experts including religious experts and one seat for non-Muslims. The Federally Administered Tribal Area is allocated 8 seats. Islamabad federal capital is allocated four seats of which two are general seats, one for women and one for technical experts.

Provincial Assemblies are directly elected through adult franchise at the time of general elections for the federal parliament. The Punjab Assembly has 371 seats, Sindh Assembly has 164 seats, Khyber PK Assemby has 124 seats and Balochistan Assembly has 51seats. The number of seats in each provincial assembly depends on the population spread in that province. Women representation in the provincial assemblies is under 20% and religious minorities are under 5%.

There are no reserved seats in the national parliament in either house for khawajasaras, the equivalent of LGBTQ community in Pakistan, or for handicapped persons both of whom are classified as vulnerable groups, although political parties are encouraged by the Election Commission to nominate them from their political platform. There are also no seats reserved for retired military officers or defence personnel in parliament despite the fact that the military has always played a major role in the politics of Pakistan even under civilian democratic rules. There are also no reserved seats in the parliament for Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan regions.

At the time of the 2017 census, Pakistan’s population was 190.32 million. Taking into account displaced persons during the military operation against terrorists, un-counted women in rural areas and the passage of time since the last census, the population figure could be well near 200 million at the end of 2019. Considering this population, the composition of elected representatives in the National Assembly is considerably very low. In Cuba, which is a country of 12 million people, the size of its national assembly is 605. The Chinese National Congress has 2287 delegates who meet every 5 years to shape policy and decide political positions. In Italy where the population is 61 million there are 630 members in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and 315 members in the Senate (upper house) all of whom are elected through adult franchise. In Britain, which is the mother of all democracies in the Commonwealth, for a population of 65 million, there are 650 members in the lower house (House of Representatives) who are directly elected and 793 members in the upper house (House of Lords) who are appointed. Pakistan’s population is three times more than Italy’s and Britain’s population. Ideally, its National Assembly should consist of 1026 members and the Senate should have at least 520 members.

There is a good justification why Pakistan parliament should be enlarged by at least three times from its present composition. Firstly, the parliament of Pakistan is considerably under represented given the large scale of the country’s administrative division comprising Districts (129), Urban Councils (2055), Rural Councils (8145), Local Authorities (9398) and Military Cantonments (56). Secondly, while the executive and the judiciary branches are very well represented in the government, as well as adequately staffed, the parliament is not as much resourced either in the National Assembly or in the Senate. Thirdly, the representatives who get elected to the parliament do not truly represent the diversity of the population, which has its roots in sections of the society other than the wealthy or land-owning people of Pakistan. Although there are quotas fixed for women, technical experts and minorities for representation in parliament, nearly 30 diverse communities or professions do not find their interests directly represented in parliament. Finally, a large parliament would be able to deliver quality performance by enabling its members to develop expertise in different areas of legislation, reduce institutional corruption, spend more time in the constituencies, strengthen committee work and block any one or few political parties or interest groups from shirking responsibility or dominating  the legislative function for their own interests as against the people’s, as has been often the case.

One of the reasons why not much thought has been given to increasing the size of the national parliament in Pakistan is the economic cost of the legislative efficiency where the efficiency of parliament is directly related to its size. While the cost of electing, maintaining and managing a sizeable legislature compared to its legislative output will always work out to be high, a larger legislative could in return result in satisfying the smaller federating units of their higher and more visible representation in parliament; a more efficient and action-oriented committee structure; and a productive division of labour in delivering legislative and oversight functions.

In a large legislature, the government spending would naturally be met through taxes raised in each constituency, thereby reducing the overall revenue collection in the national exchequer. But this can be offset by checking wastage and corruption through a better oversight function and by reducing the salary and perks of the members. For example, the honorarium of an MNA in an enlarged parliament should not exceed the maximum salary of a Grade 19 officer in the federal government. A similar reduced salary scale should apply to Senators. A political ethic should be promoted that they are the leaders of the country who are there to serve, and not to profit or seek privileges and perks. There is also no need to start constructing huge buildings to accommodate the additional members of the enlarged parliament under one roof. The existing infrastructure of the National Assembly and the Senate in Islamabad is sufficient to accommodate a large number of representatives on benches arranged in the Westminster style seating instead of the current First Class airport lounge type seats, which are ideal to relax but totally unfit for public service. A robust committee structure will also mean that all MNAs or Senators will not be required to meet frequently and when they do, a full house session can be convened at the Islamabad Convention Centre where they can make use of all the audio-video and conference facilities available to them at parliament.

A large legislature would also increase the size of the wish list for development projects each constituency would expect its representative to deliver. This expectation is but natural and also happens in the present parliament where people expect the ruling party to deliver on its electoral promises. The case for finding project finance can be turned around by making the larger legislature enact laws and oversee policies, which do not benefit only a privileged section of the population but generate income and growth using the untapped potential of human and natural resources and their clever management and allocation in each of the constituencies.

A parliament comprising over 1000 members can never be a rubber stamp parliament, nor it is possible to do horse trading with its members if they have been elected through adult franchise in a multi-party political system. The strongest argument in favour of having a larger parliament in Pakistan is the political and social conditions in the country, which have dramatically changed from the time when the 1973 constitution was adopted to run a truncated country emerging from the dark shadow of the 1972 breakup of East and West Pakistan. The phenomenal increase in population in which vote-eligible young persons form the majority, the emerging regional voices that need to be heard and given weight and the necessity of looking after the needs of a diverse and frustrated pluralistic society demand that the composition of the National Assembly and the Senate should be increased to at least three times it present membership through a constitutional amendment in the 1973 Constitution. In fact, the National Assembly and Senate seats in Pakistan are fit to serve a country of 42 million, not 200 million population.

Of course the argument of increasing the size of the parliament will be meaningless if more of the same representatives are added to these hallowed chambers for the sake of representation, legislation, ratification of signed international treaties, their enactment into local laws, budgetary allocations and oversight of high-level public appointments & functioning of government ministries and departments. A fundamental reform of the way party workers are nominated and given tickets by political parties also needs to be written into law. We have seen that the affirmative action for women representation has brought many women to high political and decision-making levels but not necessarily improved the quality of parliamentary performance except satisfying feminist groups about gender statistics. We have also seen how money politics has made the entry of good political material into parliament impossible, resulting in same faces and families taking turns at every election under the same or different party flags. In fact the term ‘electable’ used for such persons in the 2018 general election of Pakistan forced a popular reform party to change its electoral strategy and give them preference over its own political workers for grant of electoral tickets.

This reform can be implemented by a constitutional amendment expanding the seats in the National Assembly from 342 to 1026 to be contested generally against single constituencies, and in the Senate from 104 to 520 seats, representing 100 seats for each of the four provinces, 50 seats for AJK representation, 50 seats for Gilgit-Baltistan representation and 20 seats for Islamabad federal capital. The representation of AJK and GB may require further amendment of the Constitution in Article 257, which needs to be reviewed. Some current practices also need to be replaced by other good practice such as abolishing quotas for women, technical experts and non-Muslims for representation in parliament and replacing these by making it mandatory for political parties to nominate at least 33% women; 10% non-Muslims; 10% ex-military officers, 3% handicapped and 2% khwajasaras from their party platform for the general seats. Where political parties lack such diverse membership, they should be assisted by the Election Commission to start a broad based party recruitment drive.

With a larger pool of Senate seats it should be possible to allocate all the seats to a wider section of the population representing various professions and diverse interest groups comprising political workers, fishermen, miners, ex-MNAs & MPAs, farmers & farm workers, trade union members, retired judges, barristers & bar members, bankers, financial experts, academics, media persons, doctors, nurses, social workers, businessmen, vendors & traders, ulema, youth representatives, retired military officers, senior citizens over 70 years of age, transporters, builders, engineers, general contractors, hoteliers, IT professionals, retired bureaucrats, ex-diplomats, scientists, artists, poets & writers and housewives. Political parties must be obliged to nominate at least 3 persons from each of the above professions/group for the Senate elections to make up the total of 100 seats allocated to each province.

The Election Commission should also follow this up by changing some of the electoral rules for political parties. For example, multiple-constituency candidacies for general election should be made illegal as it usurps the right of other deserving political workers to become candidates because an influential person in the political party gets nominated against multiple constituencies. A political party, not meeting the electoral requirements should be heavily fined, including the possibility of it’s de-registration for consistent violation of electoral rules.

These changes will make the country’s legislature more effective in representing the diversity of the people through their chosen political parties and enable this important state institution to exercise an efficient and qualitative legislative and oversight function freely within the existing constitution and political system. However, to do so the parliament will also need to manage its large size effectively, and given the necessary political space and provided the required technical, IT and administrative support to enhance its capacity.

25 December 2019

*The writer is an ex-diplomat, an election expert and a political analyst for South Asia region.