Pakistan does not need a presidential system; May parliamentary democracy flourish without interference
Shahid Javed Burki, in his book Pakistan under Bhutto argued that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wanted a presidential form of democracy. Similar thoughts were echoed in Dr Mubahsir Hassan’s speech The mirage of power, who said Bhutto intended to use the PPP majority in the assemblies, after 1977, to constitutionally transform Pakistan into a presidential system. Bhutto’s penchant for the presidential form of governance was rooted in the benefits it provided to the person at the top.
The system ensures that executive power rests with the president, who is directly elected by the electorate. Therefore, the executive is independent from the legislature, which means that the president can enroll many unelected members in his cabinet. This is why presidential choices are roasted and controlled by the US Congress. In addition, the president cannot be removed by a vote of no confidence in the Legislative Assembly.
For the establishment-backed PTI, the ideal scenario would be to exercise power without parliamentary checks and balances. The lack of a parliamentary majority made it difficult for the hybrid regime to pass laws, despite efforts to pass the legislation.
The government circumvented normal parliamentary practice of enacting laws by issuing several presidential ordinances. Take, for example, the government’s inability to build consensus around the appointment of the NAB president.
The prime minister now intends to extend the term of the current president by introducing a presidential ordinance, which can be overturned in court. The comparison would be a president elected by direct suffrage who could appoint whoever he wants.
At the same time, the prime minister remains hostage to many MPs who have requested development funds for their constituencies, while the presidential system makes reform programs easily achievable through decrees.
There remains a recurring possibility of a vote of no confidence if the opposition accumulates adequate political capital. Simply put, the president is not accountable to the legislature the same way a prime minister is to parliament.
It is also crucial to speak out about the uncomfortable truths that plague our political life. The miltablishment continues to undermine our democracy. Their penchant for control has resulted in a largely enslaved political class. Outside of direct rule, overlords have always managed to consolidate their power in one way or another. In the 1990s, even in the parliamentary system, Articles 58-2B were routinely used by the establishment president to twice dissolve elected parliaments.
The miltablishment continues to undermine our democracy. Their penchant for control has resulted in a largely enslaved political class
In the current hybrid configuration, dissidents from the political class and a moderately dynamic opposition have succeeded in repelling the onslaught of establishment accountability and big legislative projects. The system allowed the opposition to use its parliamentary strength by negotiating space within the system, for example, agreeing to vote on the prorogation of the army chief of staff.
Some form of presidential governance would essentially wipe out any influence that elected individuals hold in the current system. Not only will they weigh directly on the president, but the cabinet would no longer be accountable to the legislature as it is now.
The presidential model implies that the establishment no longer needs to spend resources to secure a parliamentary majority for its preferred party through rigging. He will not need to threaten or sanction many elected parliaments to pass laws. The presidential system would provide the state with a hassle-free system of control. Help elect a president and control him according to his whims and wishes.
The dictators who ruled Pakistan also preferred the presidential system. They tended to exercise the aforementioned powers with impunity. Dictators like Yahya Khan, Zia, Musharraf ruled with impunity, without an elected legislature for months, and relied on a tight-knit cohort of unelected councilors. Some of the results of those eras still haunt us, thanks to the wars of Musharraf and Zia and Yahya’s ominous role in the debacle of East Pakistan.
The skepticism in Pakistan around the presidential system is justified. Demerits aside, we must test a parliamentary system of democracy that is unchecked or hampered by judicial excesses or gloomy behind-the-scenes ploys.