There is no moral case for Pakistan’s large cabinet 

There is no moral case for Pakistan’s large cabinet 

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With the latest addition of two Special Assistants, the extended cabinet of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif including Ministers, Ministers of State, Advisors and Special Assistants, has become one of the largest extended cabinets in the history of Pakistan - second only to the 91-member cabinet of Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani in 2008. In fact, the present extended cabinet may be termed as the largest after the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment which restricted the size of cabinets to a maximum 11% of total membership of legislature. 

The cabinet, in fact, consists of ministers and ministers of state only. Advisors and Special Assistants are not considered cabinet members and that’s why the term ‘extended cabinet’ has been used. 

The constitution provides for up to 5 advisors to the Prime Minister but currently only 4 advisors are serving in the government. There is no constitutional upper limit to the number of Special Assistants which a Prime Minister can appoint and the current government seems to have taken full advantage of this constitutional laxity and appointed the highest number – 27 – of Special Assistants in the history of the country. Most interestingly, 23 or 85% of these Special Assistants and one Minister have not been assigned any portfolio. Despite these high numbers and inability to assign responsibility to most of the Special Assistants, the current Prime Minister is constitutionally well within his rights to form this size of the extended cabinet. 

Each Minister, advisor or assistant is generally provided an office, staff, furnished residence, a car, driver, fuel, travel facilities and other allowances even if the cabinet members serve in an honorary capacity. 

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

But while one may be able to justify constitutional and political cases for a large cabinet, it becomes extremely difficult to justify this on moral grounds especially at this time in the country’s history, when it is facing one of the worst economic crises in its history, and unprecedented floods. It is extremely important to economize in these tough conditions and set an example of austerity for the people. 

Each Minister, advisor or assistant is generally provided an office, staff, furnished residence, a car, driver, fuel, travel facilities and other allowances even if the cabinet members serve in an honorary capacity. The real expense is not on salaries but allowances and perks. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to present a convincing moral case for a large cabinet in these difficult times. 

Generally, Prime Ministers in a parliamentary form of government face strong pressures from members of the parliament to accommodate them in the cabinet because the Prime Minister’s sustenance depends on parliamentarians. In presidential systems, such pressures are rather rare because members of parliament generally can’t become part of the cabinet and the president’s election and later continuation doesn’t depend upon legislators. This is the reason that an average number of ministers in the cabinets of President Ayub Khan during 1960-69 had been just 16. Even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when initially he was interim President in 1971-72, had a small cabinet of 13 members. 

Coalition parliamentary governments face even greater pressures from allies for increased representation in the cabinet and the Prime Minister, in most cases, has no option but to oblige the partners. The phenomenon of coalitions is very common in parliamentary governments because there are times when none of the parties is able to gain clear majority in the parliament. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan had to form a coalition government of about 6 parties and ended up forming an extended cabinet of about 50 members. Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani’s cabinet had also become the largest when PPP decided to form a coalition government with PML-N in 2008. 

The current Shehbaz Sharif-led coalition government has probably the highest number of coalition partners in our history. Nine parties already have representation in the extended cabinet and there are some parties such as ANP, JUP, NDM and JAH who support the coalition but don’t have a berth in the extended cabinet as yet. It is quite possible that some of their nominees may also be added to the extended cabinet in the days to come. 

It is an election year in Pakistan which carries its own compulsions for political parties. In order to keep the potential election alliances intact, offering a position in the cabinet is usually found to be the most effective unifying factor. But ethically, the timing couldn’t be worse. 

*The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat

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