For Pakistan, the presidential system is passé
The airwaves in Pakistan these days are thick with unexpected demands for a “presidential system.” Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent dismissal of the possibility of a governance switchover, many in government, including President Arif Alvi, Water and Power Minister Faisal Wauda and Sindh Governor Imran Ismail, as well as a phalanx of retired military analysts and rightwing journalists, and some smaller parties such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, have recently been championing the suitability of this system as a panacea for Pakistan’s perennial governance quagmire. Does the country need such a system?
Pakistan has a chequered history of trying various governance systems to solve the country’s complex political challenges. It is currently governed by the Constitution of 1973, the longest lasting of half a dozen varieties — and what comes closest to constituting a political miracle for having been passed unanimously and lasting nearly five decades, albeit with periodic abrogation or suspension. It stipulates a federal parliamentary system with a bicameral national parliament and simultaneously allowing each of the country’s four provinces to have a provincial legislature for self-governance.
If this constitution has lasted so long and still commands respect and compliance, why the calls for a presidential system? A clue lies in the country’s previous experience with presidential systems of different varieties. For roughly half of the country’s 72-year existence, the country has been ruled by four military dictators, three of whom upended civilian rule and one who staged a coup against his own military command. Each of the four military strongmen preferred the presidential system because it helped them keep their job of heading the army as well as being head of state while circumventing the need for a parliament to elect and hold them accountable.
The civilian rulers on the other hand have preferred a parliamentary system as the central governance model because it allows them to mobilize electoral constituencies for their political parties and gives them the opportunity to prove their popularity. It’s a more difficult but also a more rewarding political system in Pakistan’s historical experience because the parliamentary model allows for participatory and pluralistic politics and allows the people to elect their own leaders. This is inevitable for Pakistan if its myriad pluralisms — the country being multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-linguist, multi-cultural and multi-religious — are to be made stakeholders in shaping the country’s destiny.
The current clamour-of-sorts for a presidential system seems to stem from a growing disillusionment with the ruling PTI and its inability to shore up a frittering economy rather than any perceived failure of the parliamentary system.
The presidential system, on the other hand, propounds an overt centrality of command that actively seeks to paper over socio-political pluralisms in favor of military-style discipline in policy-making. The latest calls for a presidential system are rooted in the political experience of this millennium. The last time the presidential system caved in to demands for a parliamentary system of governance was in 2008 when the last military dictator was hounded out of office. The intervening decade-plus experience of parliamentary system is the longest period in Pakistan’s history without a military ruler having installed himself in office, abrogated the constitution and enacted a presidential system to run a dictatorial system of governance.
The current clamour-of-sorts for a presidential system seems to stem from a growing disillusionment with the ruling PTI and its inability to shore up a frittering economy rather than any perceived failure of the parliamentary system. This even as the two parties (of Bilawal Bhutto and Shahbaz Sharif) that have governed the country five times between them – having won eight of the country’s 10 elections – have been sidelined with their leaders facing controversial legal cases in courts and don’t seem to be in a position to offer national alternatives. This is allowing for a minor yearning for strongman governance that can arrest the general drift. Vested interests are trying to divert discontent with the government into a disillusionment with the system.
However, without legitimacy and broad ownership, the presidential system cannot work simply because it is associated with the military and equated with an absence of accountability. The rising din in Pakistan’s polity is for greater accountability, not less whereas the presidential system stands for zero accountability and unfettered powers. Moreover, Pakistani courts are currently occupied with a case of treason against the last military ruler — General Pervez Musharraf — who abrogated the constitution, swapped the parliamentary system with a presidential system, and installed himself as president. The case is unlikely to whip up imaginary populism for a system under trial.
To be sure, Pakistan’s governance system is straining at the seams. But Pakistan’s fractious polity calls for de-polarization rather than re-centralization of political powers. In legal terms, the constitution forbids a presidential system. The constitution will have to be amended by a two-thirds majority, a critical mass that doesn’t exist, to get legal sanction for a change in governance system. The only other alternative is martial law, which doesn’t require troubling legal imperatives to claim legitimacy. The time for martial law, however, is long past. The solution to Pakistan’s democratic shortcomings is more democracy, not less.