The Speaker versus the Constitution

Imran Khan superimposed on National Assembly of Pakistan

In seemingly acting out of fear of his boss Imran Khan, Qasim Suri has dealt a great blow to Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

By Shehryar Awan Published April 6, 2022 – Updated about 8 hours ago

With the dismissal of the no-confidence motion — or more aptly, the no-confidence resolution — the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly departed from the duties bestowed upon him — not just in a personal capacity — but on the esteemed office that he occupied.

Accusations of bias have plagued parliamentary speakers across the globe — John Bercow, a former speaker of Britain’s House of Commons, is still refused a House of Lords peerage due to his perceived anti-Brexit bias. In the US, Nancy Pelosi was widely criticised as Speaker of the House for being overly partial against Trump.

These criticisms pale, however, in front of the blatant abuse of the Constitution carried out by Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri this Sunday, when he arbitrarily decided that the entire opposition — comprising over 197 elected members of parliament — was involved in a foreign plot to overthrow the government.

Not only did he lack the Constitutional right to pass a personal judgement on the veracity of the ‘foreign plot’ claim under Article 5, he violated his responsibilities under Schedule 2 of the Rules of Conduct of Business to supervise a fair, unbiased voting process on a resolution presented before the Assembly.

If only he had looked into history, there was great precedent for him to stay true to his constitutional duties and carry out his responsibilities in a legal manner.

Indeed, one need not look further back than January 2021 when Donald Trump’s presidency was slowly unraveling in the United States. Faced with certain electoral defeat, Trump called on his long-time ally Vice President Mike Pence to halt the electoral counting process through a dubious reading of the US Constitution.

With the Republican Party fully under Trump’s control — as is the PTI under Imran Khan’s — opposing the president’s order was bound to be political suicide for Pence. Yet it was loyalty to the state that prevented him from subverting the law. He later remarked that he was constrained by the Constitution from “claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not”.

If Qasim Suri acted out of fear of his boss Imran Khan, or indeed out of his own political interest, then he has truly dealt a great blow to the already fragile democratic system in Pakistan.

Divided loyalties?

Deputy Speaker Suri’s boss is not Imran Khan — it is the National Assembly. The Speaker of Parliament is meant to serve as a champion of parliamentarians.

When King Charles I of England sought to dissolve the House of Commons in 1642 and demanded the support of Speaker William Lenthal, the latter refused to submit to the King, saying: “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.

It was the first time a Speaker had declared allegiance to Parliament over the king, and the message was clear — not even the King of England was above a democratically elected Parliament.

These allegiances of loyalty to Parliament are not simply alien concepts only practiced in the West.

Speaker Maulvi Tamizuddin’s role in challenging the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly in 1954 by Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed is an early example of a Speaker siding with the rule of law over an authoritarian leader. His decision to take the matter to court and argue against the dissolution provides a great example of how Speakers should act when faced with undemocratic elements.

A chequered history

Ironically, it was Tamizuddin’s case, “Federation of Pakistan vs Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan”, that gave birth to a legal doctrine — the Doctrine of Necessity — that has since been used as a justification by anti-democratic forces to subvert the Constitution.

This doctrine is a smear on the Supreme Court’s image as a beacon of justice that still continues to be invoked to date. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Chief Justice Muhammad Munir’s utilitarian approach may have ultimately allowed further subversions of the Constitution if it is deemed to be in the so-called “greater interest” of society, paving the way for the events of April 3, 2022.

As a result of such doctrines, the government seems to be comfortable in openly disregarding the rules laid out in the Constitution — whether it is the passing of unfounded judgments of treachery against opposition members, or turning the non-partisan role of the Speaker into a political tool.

Less a “surprise” and more of an ambush, Imran Khan’s “trump card” is not aimed at the opposition, but rather at the Constitution of Pakistan and every citizen who wishes to abide by it.

There is perhaps no one else to blame for empowering the government to act unconstitutionally except past decisions of the apex court. Had the government any fear of the legal repercussions, they would not have risked such a move.

Read further

Suggested Reading by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times, for the best understanding of personal religion in the 21st century

My main suggestion to the open minded readers is to read on and in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”

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