Mar 24 - 30, 2008

To coincide with the Pakistan Day this year, the democratic process in the country took a fresh start when 325 newly elected members of the 13th National Assembly (NA) took oath of their offices recently.

The oath taking of new NA seemed more as a beginning of a new area. It was different in mood and style from all similar occasions in the past. On the surface, the ritual went off smoothly, much in contrast to such exercises earlier. There was no display of go-go heckling or desk thumping. That the members were in a different mood was made clear when prior to the oath-taking, Syed Naveed Qamar of PPP, sought clarification from the speaker on whether the members assembled would be administered oath under the 1973 constitution. Speaker Amir Hussain, seeing the tide changing, was quick to clarify that members would take oath under the third schedule of the 1973 constitution and there was no change in the wording of oath. Yet the PPP-PML (N) MNAs took no chance and loudly added words that ensured that they were swearing by the constitution as it was before the (Nov 2007) emergency.

The arrival of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in the visitor's gallery was marked by thunderous desk thumping whereas arrival of Ch. Shujat Hussain was not even acknowledged. All present in the House felt how times have changed.

On a serious note the occasion invoked a mixed feeling. It was for the first time in the history of the country that the two opposing parties have decided to share power in a transparent and congenial way. There was a general feeling of hope in the Parliament that the PPP and PML (N) might have learnt from their past conduct of hostility, mistakes and errors. They may deliver not only on the fronts of restoration of deposed judges and the presidency but the serious problems on the economic front like rising inflation, rising trade deficit, budget deficit, falling export and looming power shortages. The poor and have-nots who have voted them to power are expecting some immediate relief from rising food prices.

As Nawaz Sharif rightly observed "it is not transfer of power, it is a transfer of problems." There is no doubt that the incoming government will inherit daunting challenges on the economic front because of misrule and wrong polices perused during the last over 8 years.

Given the all-pervasive hopelessness that had gripped the national political landscape for so long, it indeed is the beginning and the first step on a new journey. It appears to be marking the watershed that clearly separates a contentious political past from a future full of hopefulness and political positivism. If the would be treasury leaders are upbeat because their victory has vindicated their struggle for democracy, the would-be leadership on the other side of the divide has promised to shun the highly polarized past and to act as a constructive parliamentary opposition. Even when the country is mired in multiple troubles, ranging from terrorism bred insecurity to high inflation and painful energy deficits, the very sight of newly elected members taking oath has dramatically lifted the national spirit.

However, restoration of deposed judges, the pattern of equation between the presidency and parliament, the new government's policy and plans to tackle the growing menace of terrorism, which would require a review of its cooperative alliance with the West, and grappling with the economic situation are the substantive challenges that PPP-PML (N)-ANP coalition would have to deal with. Since the coalition would have no serious difficulty in mustering two-thirds majority to enable it to amend the Constitution, the first two challenges would not be impossible to meet, but the next two would demand patience, hard work innovations.

Of the new legislators who took oath, 119 are those who have been elected to the National Assembly for the first time, the rest of them being old timers. But even when about two-thirds have come back, it is the time for the new National Assembly to completely disown its inheritance from its predecessors. The 12th National Assembly did complete its full tenure, which is a highly misplaced credit, because it was kept alive while it was doing practically more than waiting to re-elect Pervez Musharraf. Had there been snap elections two years earlier, the political chaos that permeated in the last year or so would not have been there. Another thing that the new assembly should try not to inherit is a partial Speakership. The outgoing Speaker, Amir Hussain, who was twice subjected to vote of no-confidence, a rare distinction in parliamentary history, would stand out as one of the most controversial presiding officers. And, the newcomers can make the difference also by refusing to accept the unreasonably high salaries and fringe benefits that their predecessors enjoyed for doing almost nothing. Likewise, the number of direct beneficiaries which were no less than 120 in the last assembly should be brought down.

It would not be out of place to remind the new National Assembly that it is not only the product of general election; it is the child of a revolution. It was elected even when its leaders were either absent from the scene or had decided to boycott the polls. It was the throw-up of a tough fight against a system totally nurtured by the establishment, bank-rolled by vested interests and pampered and protected by international godfathers. The February 18 vote was quintessentially rejection of that system. That fight was joined also by the legal fraternity, civil society, intelligentsia and the media. So, running the government of Pakistan from now on would be a different game. Not only would it be accountable in the parliament but also out of it before the emerging reality of public awareness. This is indeed the biggest challenge. It is hoped that Asif-Nawaz-Asfandyar trio would come up to the expectations of the people. We welcome the new legislators who took oath with the pledge "to preserve, protect and defend" the constitution.