By Anwar Syed
IT has become customary to assert that in its amended form the constitution invests the president with awesome authority and power in the country’s governance. I have read the constitution in its several versions and found this impression to be incorrect.
The president has the power to make certain appointments, some of them in his discretion and others in consultation with the prime minister or, in the case of judges, the chief justice. He can call for reconsideration of decisions the prime minister or the cabinet has made but must accept them as they are reported out after reconsideration. He can dissolve the National Assembly if he finds that the government of the federation cannot be carried on according to the constitution. That pretty much exhausts his authority.
It is true that he ruled the country even after the election of 2002, but he did so because of the force he commanded as the army chief. He lost this base of power after he gave up his army post. He had also been building a support base outside the armed forces. His agents seduced or intimidated politicians to desert their parties and came together in a new formation called Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q).
Relying on General Musharraf’s indulgence, its managers reaped the rewards of power even though they had never put seed in the ground. They avoided the toil of building rapport with the people and mass support for their organisation. The elections in 2002 were rigged to enable PML-Q to emerge as the dominant party in coalition governments at the centre and in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. By way of returning General Musharraf’s favours, the party leaders gave him unqualified obedience and applauded his policies and initiatives, both domestic and external.
As Musharraf’s standing declined, the PML-Q fell even lower in public esteem. Its gross neglect of the people’s needs and aspirations and its abject subservience to the army chief/president brought it humiliating defeat in the election of Feb 18, 2008. Thus, the great majority of voters repudiated both General Musharraf and the party he had put together.
One should have thought that having lost his base in both the army and national politics, the general would either go home in retirement or at least be quiescent. Two other parties, PPP and PML-N, well grounded in mass support, emerged from the election with the mandate to govern and they formed coalition governments. With these developments in mind, I had anticipated that if he chose to remain president, he would be content with the role of essentially a ceremonial head of state.
I mentioned this interpretation to political observers of my acquaintance, and most of them rejected it. They believed that having exercised virtually total power for eight years, he had become addicted to it, and that he was going to do what he could to undo the ground realities the elections had produced and destabilise the new government. Indications are that their interpretation may be closer to the truth than mine.
In parliamentary democracies, the head of state normally acts on the advice of the prime minister, not on his own initiative. General Musharraf went to China a few weeks ago and talked with some of its leaders in addition to sightseeing. The trip cost many millions of rupees. Did Prime Minister Gilani ask him to go and, if so, why? If some important business was to be transacted with the Chinese government, he could have gone himself or sent his foreign minister.
Mr Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, was in the country recently and he was reported to have negotiated a gas pipeline deal with General Musharraf. Once again it is not clear why Prime Minister Gilani did not talk things over with Ahmadinejad. The latter may be head of the executive in Iran, but the prime minister is head of the executive in Pakistan. It would have been in the fitness of things for the two of them to discuss matters of mutual interest.
I do not accept the proposition that General Musharraf is personally known to, and trusted by, world leaders, and that he is therefore uniquely positioned to guide and conduct this country’s foreign relations. We know that he has visited scores of countries as Pakistan’s spokesman but it is not known what he has brought back other than promises of cooperation in the war against terrorism, and free trade agreements, which flood our stores with foreign merchandise to the detriment of our own manufacturers.
It is surprising to hear the general say that he is willing to work with the present government. He does not seem to understand that he has no other option. The law requires him to do as told.
Political leaders in Pakistan have been clamouring for the supremacy of the constitution and that of parliament. The latter means that its designees (the prime minister and his cabinet) will govern and remain accountable to it for their conduct. It is said that the president is a part of parliament. That does not mean that he can replace the parliament’s designees as the ruling authority. It means that the country will be governed by laws made by parliament and not by presidential ordinances, and that issues of policy will be settled through discussion and debate in its Houses.
If the primacy of parliament is to materialise, the president must be confined to his constitutional role. It is not clear why the PPP leadership is letting him go beyond his assigned role and transgress the prime minister’s domain. And this, despite the fact that he continues to treat PML-Q as his party and is trying to make it a counterpoise to the PPP and PML-N.
I am not willing to believe that Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani is letting Musharraf get away with his machinations and transgressions because he is timid. But we know also that he defers to Mr Zardari who at this time is acting as the power behind the throne, and he, for reasons which are not generally known, wants the general to be an activist president.
If the current pattern of their interaction continues, the historian of tomorrow may have to conclude that these two gentlemen had made a partnership to subvert the constitution of Pakistan.
The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a former visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.
Source: Daily dawn, 18/5/2008