A New Perspective on the System of Governance in Pakistan

[While the debate for a presidential system of government has revived in Pakistan in 2022, the author proposes a new governance structure for the country, including the military’s representation in Parliament.]

Syed Sharfuddin

A discussion on replacing the current parliamentary form of government with a presidential form is doing rounds in the recent conversation of Pakistan’s political pundits and social media stalwarts. While this topic is not new, its resurgence is indication that the matter is not settled yet and may well be tried in the next power reshuffle if it is possible to do so within the democratic mechanisms available under the 1973 constitution and the laws enacted under it. The government has denied that any such system is under consideration. The opposition fears that it is a part of a covert plan of the establishment to consolidate power in the hands of one person instead of collective governance provided in the constitution of Pakistan. Analysts think it is testing the waters to see the public reaction. There is also the conspiracy theory that the establishment would prefer to deal with one person at the top for running the government instead of negotiating with the multiple poles of power which require tedious consensus building, taking much time and energy and sometimes even covert funding but achieving little or no results.

Pakistan went through the presidential system of governance five times under Iskandar Mirza, Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. The civilian presidents were Iskandar Mirza who was replaced in the military coup of 1958 and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who became prime minister after the adoption of the 1973 constitution which opted for a parliamentary system of democracy. The other three Generals who ruled as presidents, chose the presidential system because they were martial law administrators and for the most part when they were in power, the constitution was suspended. Every time power was restored to the civilian leadership, Pakistan returned to the parliamentary form of government.

In parliamentary democracy political power is collectively exercised by the prime minister who is the chief executive of the state and head of a cabinet comprising the most trusted members of his team. There is also a non-executive president, who is the symbolic head of state but not head of government. In presidential democracy on the other hand, political power is vested in the authority of the president who is both the head of state and the head of government. In this system the president is held in check by a unicameral or bicameral legislature which can impeach him for breach of the constitution but cannot reject his policies unless it is a money bill requiring majority assent of parliament in addition to that of the president. This is the basic framework of democratic governance, although every country has introduced some unique features in its constitution which seek to address the peculiar requirements of its society and ethos of its people.

One of the weaknesses of the parliamentary system is that it demands a highly charismatic prime minister who is able to successfully take his policies through the system by winning the backing of the less reluctant backbenchers of his own party, as well as keeping his coalition partners happy, if there is a coalition government. The prime minister also needs to take into account the stance of the opposition and needs to have sufficient voting strength in the legislature for the passage of government-sponsored bills and implement his government’s agenda. Where these features are absent, especially in fragile federations and conflict-affected countries, a prime minister is reduced to a majordomo because the political system does not give him the power to push his bold agenda forward. President Erdogan of Turkey realised that his hands were tied in a non-executive presidency prior to the 2016 failed military coup. He used his popularity to win a referendum that enabled him to abolish the post of prime minister and replace the parliamentary system with a presidential form of government. In his new capacity, Erdogan managed to push though his economic agenda without having to go through a long winded political process. That he was able to do so is no guarantee, however, that the military will not cease power in Turkey again, or that Turkey will always have a charismatic leader like Erdogan.

In a presidential form of government, a mediocre president runs the risk of bringing much controversy to his office and even destroy democracy if the opposition is not strong or if the military does not interfere to stop the country sliding fast on the road to instability and chaos. What saves such situations is the strength of the country’s constitution, a history of legislative precedents to overcome political crises, people’s respect for the rule of law and a commitment by political parties to adhere to democratic principles without blindly following their party position. A recent example of this was president Trump who is still facing court cases for incitement to armed insurrection of the US Capitol by his party’s hooligans in January last year on the eve of the inauguration of President Biden. What saved the situation in the US last year was its strong democratic system and the commitment of the sate governors and legislators to remain united, rejecting violence and bipartisan politics. The proponents of the presidential form of government should not lose sight of these essential requirements and the long-term view of the system where authority is concentrated in the president with no guarantee that he will always take correct political decisions in the interest of the country. Many African countries have adopted the presidential form of government, but their record does not add up to represent best practice.

In fragile or security-prone federations, states have domestic pressures from their constituent units which takes a large slice of government pie to satisfy the key stakeholders. Concentrating power in a few hands can lead to a feeling of isolation and neglect on the part of remote and economically less-performing federating units, which Pakistanis are too familiar with in a discussion of small versus big provinces. A presidential system could upset this delicate inter-provincial balance, especially in hard economic times.

In my view it is neither easy nor wise for Pakistan to replace the existing Westminster style parliamentary system with a US style presidential system. What Pakistan can do, however, is to give the president a substantive role in governance instead of keeping him as a figurative head of state while real power is vested in the prime minister. If the office of the president was abolished by the constitution, no one will probably notice. To make the president meaningful and relevant in the present system, he must have a popular mandate and an active role that compliments the work of the executive. For that to happen, the president should be directly elected by people instead of an electoral college of legislators. Because Pakistan’s provinces are not at the same level of development and are also diverse in demography, the president should not come from the same province as that of the prime minister. Any politician or technocrat who has at least once been a member of the provincial or national legislature or served as governor of a province should be eligible to contest the election of the president. He should not belong to a political party and should stand independently, as long as he meets the candidacy criteria prescribed in the constitution.

The functions of the president and prime minister should be redefined by amending the relevant chapters of the 1973 constitution. Since the president is the symbol of federation, three subjects, namely defence, foreign affairs and inter-provincial coordination should be transferred from the purview of the prime minister to the office of the president. In addition, the president should be given the constitutional authority to appoint, instead of acting on the recommendation of the prime minister, provincial governors, chief election commissioner and other members of the commission, chief justice and other judges of the superior judiciary, chiefs of defence forces, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, and chairmen of National Accountability Bureau, National Security Council and National Disaster Management Authority. Any transfers or removals of these position holders should also be done by the president without the advice or influence of the prime minister or leader of the opposition. As the supreme commander of the armed forces of Pakistan, the president should be mandated to consult the military chiefs as frequently as is necessary and inform the prime minister about his consultations, where required.

The ISPR media cell, Foreign Office spokesman’s office and President’s press and media office should be merged into one federal information agency. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the prime minister’s media office should continue functioning as at present. Each agency should focus on matters which fall under the respective responsibility of the president and the prime minister.

However, to provide checks and balances, all ambassadorial appointments made by the president, ratification of foreign agreements and treaties, and decisions concerning defence and security matters should be scrutinised by parliament and approved by the two houses. On his part, the prime minister should focus on economy, stability, connectivity, investment, agricultural and industrial growth, trade, healthcare, education, housing, infrastructure development, environment and social care. The president should retain the power to ask a prime minister to show his strength in the house if he feels that the prime minister has ceased to enjoy the support of the majority of the parliament. Similarly, parliament should retain the power to impeach the president if it feels that the president has violated the constitution or breached any law.

I have mentioned earlier in this essay that every country adapts democracy to its own particular circumstances. Therefore, it is not necessary that Pakistan should strictly follow the presidential and parliamentary models of the West for choosing a form of government which meets its requirements. It is not a secret that in the past, sharp differences have existed between the president and the prime minister, for example, Gen Ziaul Haq and Muhammad Khan Junejo and Farooq Laghari and Benazir Bhutto.

The new model of governance could give rise to a cold war between the president and the prime minister for concentrating power in one camp at the expense of the other, irrespective of the fact that the functions of each office would be clearly defined in the constitution with no room for conflict of interest or duplication. However, to ensure against a political impasse caused by rivalry between the president and the prime minister for control of political power, the constitution should require that if as a result of such rivalry, the president succeeds in removing a prime minister through a vote of no confidence, he too will have to resign within 90 days of the departure of the prime minister and seek a fresh mandate from the people. Similarly, if a prime minister succeeds in removing a president he cannot work with through a vote of impeachment, he too will have to resign within 90 days of the departure of the president and call a general election to seek a fresh mandate from the people. The election of the president should be held at the same time as the general election to save costs.

The constitution should also make it clear that the president is the head of the federation/state and in-charge of three departments (defence, foreign affairs and inter-provincial coordination) and the prime minister is head of government and in-charge of public finance, taxation, interior and all other departments the constitution places under the federal government. The respective media departments of the president and prime minister should also strictly stay within the areas their principals have been assigned in the constitution.

The proposed changes in the executive set-up will have a positive impact on the quality and output of governance. The legislature will continue to perform its function as defined in the constitution for accountability of the executive, representation of people and enactment of legislation to facilitate the work of the executive and the judiciary. The new arrangement will enable the prime minister to focus on the country’s economic development and monitor the performance of his ministers without getting dragged in controversies, in addition to concentrating on the business of parliament. By bringing some key statutory appointments under the sole authority of the president, these institutions will be free from any real or perceived pressure from the prime minister or any other quarter, as has been traditionally alleged by the opposition in every government in the past, with the present government being no exception. The prime minister and his cabinet will take cognisance of the fact that an independent election commission, an impartial accountability watchdog and an independent judiciary on whom they can exercise no influence will make it much harder for them to claim success of government without delivering on their election manifesto. Their focus should be no political point scoring but delivering on their promises to showcase their performance. This will also result in making the opposition responsible and focused on national issues instead of engaging in polemics and personal attacks against government ministers.

It is not just the political system that needs fixing but also the role of the military which should be formalised in the country’s political process. Despite what is said in Western democracies about the military being subordinate to political leadership, the fact is that in times of war or national crisis in any country, the people who actually call the shots are the military elites. In those situations, civilian rulers simply become their Generals’ mouthpiece. Since independence, Pakistan has been perpetually under a security threat from its bigger and bitter neighbour India. This is not a myth or a self-imagined fantasy. If India was a well-wisher of Pakistan, the riots that accompanied the 1947 partition could have been avoided with the Indian National Congress agreeing with the Muslim League a formula for peaceful population exchange. The Treaty of Lausanne worked out a formula for the peaceful exchange of two million Turkish-Greek people in 1923 without any bloodshed. If India were a friendly neighbour, the state of Bangladesh would never have come into being as an independent country until the dissenting leaders in East Pakistan reached a political understanding with West Pakistan to secede without a single person dying on either side.

In regard to the present challenges, the twenty years’ insurgency in Afghanistan has left deep impact on Pakistan’s security, economy and foreign policy. The recent RSS threats of genocide of Indian Muslims and ‘correcting the demographic imbalance’ in the illegally annexed Jammu and Kashmir make Pakistan’s eastern border extremely dangerous every day. With these compulsions, to say that the military should simply sit in the barracks and not interfere with political governance shows lack of understanding of the country’s past experience and its serious ongoing and future challenges. That the military should stay as a department of the government may be fashionable in the West because this applies to countries that were once at war with each other but have now learnt to live as peaceful neighbours. It is regrettably not true of Pakistan nor the region where it is situated.

I have a proposal that goes a step further than the debate on the presidential form of government. It calls for a new constitutional amendment allowing a selected number of serving military personnel to be represented in parliament as the voice of an important stakeholder in discussing and legislating on the security and development policies of the country. These representatives should be serving officers from the three forces at the level of commodore, brigadier or air commodore and above. They should come to parliament on deputation for a fixed term of 5 years and then return to their service. They should be elected on non-party basis by the serving and retired military personnel in the country forming a separate voters’ list. For their election to be meaningful, the military should nominate at least thrice the number of representatives intended to be sent to parliament through their separate voters’ list.

By giving the military a constitutional role in the democratic decision-making process of Pakistan it should be every one’s hope and commitment to firmly shut the door for ‘Ottoman palace intrigues’ and the negative ‘Byzantine propaganda’ that is churned 24/7 by hostile agencies and their misguided converts to malign the public against the defenders of Pakistan.

Giving representation to the armed forces in parliament is not a new idea. The constitution of Uganda under Article 78 envisages the inclusion of the representatives of the army, along with representation of youth workers, persons with disabilities and other groups in parliament. Their number and procedure of election is determined by Uganda’s parliament from time to time. The constitution of Pakistan, under Articles 51 and 59 envisages the representation of women, technocrats and minorities in parliament according to a certain formula. The representation of the military is excluded from these groups. But it is time that these Articles are amended to allow formal representation of the military in parliament according to a set formula which should be almost equal to that of current reserved women seats in the National Assembly and Senate. As a matter of fact, to enhance the role of women in Pakistani politics, the reserved women’s seats in both the Houses should be abolished and replaced by a constitutional amendment which should statutorily require all political parties taking part in the provincial and national Assembly elections to field no less than 50% women among their candidates for the general seats in all provinces. After the passage of the constitutional amendment, if political parties fail to follow this requirement at a general election, the Election Commission should cancel their registration and stop them from campaigning until such time they meet the 50% requirement of women candidates for contesting the elections.

There is a need for the political leadership to tolerate the military’s penchant for political power for two reasons: firstly, because the military has been closely associated with politics for more than half the age of Pakistan; and secondly, because the civilian leadership has itself encouraged the Generals to fill the vacuum in institutions which the civilian administrations of the time were unable to run, manage and perform efficiently, until such time that military moved in to clear the civilian mess almost everywhere from ailing industries and failed mega projects to utility companies, air transport, election monitoring, public health and polio vaccination to establish a new normal in the country, and until it was too late to call for their exit.

The ‘civilianisation’ of the military is a one way process in which a fully trained force meant for the defence of the frontiers of the state also provides civilian professional services in road building, power generation, education, housing, healthcare, food production, telecommunications, heavy industry, cyber security and technology. But this is a unilateral process because in this arrangement the military does not allow reciprocity to the civilian authority to do military’s job or assume any of its roles in the defence forces. At the most, civilians are allowed to help the military in maintaining accounts books, provide air and naval support roles and run the defence ministry’s bureaucracy. The military also does not want to make army training compulsory for all citizens because in a pluralistic state where there is a history of clandestine separatist organisations being propped up and funded from abroad to work as proxies of foreign powers, a national military preparedness and training service can prove to be a disaster for the unity of command and discipline of the regular forces.

In states where there is a history of political military overlap of power, it is important for the armed forces to remain fully trained and professional. It is also important that the distinction between military officers and their civilian counterparts is clearly defined and kept separate. In countries where this delicate balance was not maintained, there was a breakdown of security and order. Examples of this breakdown are the experiences of Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

But this is not a phenomena which is unique to Pakistan. In China, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) was closely involved in building infrastructural projects in China for many years. In Latin America and Africa many counties employed their military in national development projects. In any disaster situation in the world, the military is the first to respond with clearing debris and opening roads in aid of the civilian administration. A civilian democratic government does not mean a complete divorce from the involvement of the military in the administration. The military is always an integral part of the political and decision-making process, but they are not the sole decision makers.

The challenges faced by Pakistan internally, as well as externally in the region require regular and close coordination between the military and civilian leadership. In Pakistan’s case, civil-military balance is heavily impacted by the external security environment relating to India, Afghanistan, Iran, China, the Middle East and the United States. This means that even if the country is not at war or in active combat mode, the army cannot just sit in the barracks doing its routine training and waiting for the civilian government to deploy it when needed. The military needs to be pro-active and often ahead of the game to warn the government of the impending danger and threats. In a volatile situation it also makes sense for the civilian administration to use the expertise of the military not just during war, but also in time of peace. This augers favourably for a constitutional amendment to formalise the military’s role in politics by bringing its representation in parliament as an important stakeholder and partner in the security and development of Pakistan.

Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Pakistani diplomat and a political analyst. He served as a special adviser for political affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London from 2000 to 2007. He also formerly served as CEO of Muslim Aid, UK from 2010 to 2014.






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