Pakistan’s power dilemma

By Kunwar Idris

IN the sixty-second year of independence the political dilemma facing the people of Pakistan is the same as it was in the first year — in whom the executive authority of the state vests and who actually exercises it?

It became an issue serious enough in the lifetime of Mr Jinnah to have persuaded him to remind the army officers at the Staff College, Quetta on June 14, 1948 that “under the Government of India Act as adapted for use in Pakistan which is our present constitution the executive authority flows from the head of the Government of Pakistan who is the Governor General”.

Since then the problem has persisted through every regime — parliamentary, presidential, dictatorial or hybrid of all three — but was never more troublesome than it is now.

The president as head of the state represents the unity of the republic. The executive authority of the federation also vests in him but the constitution binds him to act only “in accordance with the advice of the cabinet or the prime minister”. The current practice is the other way round; it is the prime minister who acts on the advice of the president. Such, at least, is the impression widely held both at home and abroad.

A doubt also hangs over the credentials of the president to represent the unity of the republic for Asif Zardari is also the head of his own party which is just one of the many parties represented in parliament and in the provincial legislatures, some of whom fiercely disagree with the policies being pursued by him.

The executive powers exercised by the authoritarian or charismatic individuals in our political system have seldom conformed to the intent or letter of the constitution. One of the more deplorable expressions of this tradition was seen in the dismissal of the Supreme Court by Gen Musharraf when the chief justice refused to resign under his pressure. Mr Zardari may now feel more restrained but he has visibly assumed a role in statecraft which is not envisaged for the head of state in the constitution.

It can be reasonably argued that Mr Zardari because of his inherited charisma, which has made him the undisputed leader of the PPP, is better suited to be the executive head of the country at this critical juncture than Yusuf Raza Gilani. But then he should have chosen, and the choice was all his, to be the prime minister rather than turn the constitution on its head.

Mr Zardari being the head of state but acting as executive head of the government gives rise to a question more fundamental than just exceeding the constitutional role of the president. And that question is whether the country’s government in its outlook and essential features is going to be parliamentary or presidential.

Ironically, though the executive power in Pakistan all along has tended to centre around individuals starting from Jinnah onward to Ghulam Mohammad, Ayub Khan, Z.A. Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf, most political parties have always shown strong commitment to the parliamentary form of government. So pervasive has been this Westminster sentiment that even the Supreme Court while validating Musharraf’s coup and permitting him to amend the constitution, or keep it in abeyance in parts, expressly prohibited him from tempering with its parliamentary character (sadly, the court neither censured nor arraigned him when he didn’t abide by its direction).

The people at large, on the other hand, have always been more concerned about the performance and integrity of a government rather than with its form. Their elected representatives nevertheless have remained steadfast in their loyalty to the parliamentary system. So also was the PPP till the time Mr Zardari became the president and began to raise doubts.

The recent inter-party pacts were also for the instant and total repeal of the changes wrought by Mr Musharraf through the 17th amendment. Mr Zardari has however left the consideration of this issue to a parliamentary committee without a deadline. There seems no hurry. The committee when formed, obviously with the majority of its members drawn from the PPP and its allies, may propose the repeal of Article 58-2(b) but, in the present situation, is unlikely to recommend the abolition of the National Security Council.

Parliament is also unlikely to disturb the powers of the president to appoint the chiefs of the armed forces, governors, judges and chief election commissioner at his sole discretion or in consultation with the prime minister but not on his advice.

Mr Zardari’s government in its essential characteristics is thus shaping up to be more presidential than parliamentary. In practice it would be altogether presidential if he were to use his party office and personal clout also to take over the functions of the prime minister and the cabinet which he is visibly doing already on an extensive scale.

The supremacy of parliament which was the unifying war cry in the campaign against Musharraf thus would remain a myth notwithstanding Mr Zardari’s own avowal that he is a president subservient to parliament. As president he would not be even directly answerable to it. The prime minister and the ministers would be there to defend his actions as their own which they will surely do faithfully.

In the seven months of its existence the performance of parliament even as a debating forum has been perfunctory. The burning issues relating to terrorism, economic decline, financial bankruptcy, development planning, lawlessness and crime are all placed under the charge of advisers who are not members of parliament nor accountable to it.

The briefings by army officers and the information minister, the parliamentarians allege, have not added to what they knew already about the war on terror through media reports and bazaar rumours. It is they and not the generals and the advisers who should have been making the policy to combat terrorism.

In these fateful times the parliamentarians should not be seen sitting on the sidelines or just sulking. Cutting across party lines, they must support the government or oppose it unless they have made a conscious decision to leave the fate of the country in the hands of the generals and advisers only to blame them when it is too late.

Source: Daily Dawn, 19/10/2008

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