Talk of any kind of imbalance and Pakistan has it. The civil-military imbalance is the most common, but what do you do when the established structures of the state like the bureaucracy and the police and the judiciary seem to be imploding with inefficiency and dysfunctionality?
As a consequence governance suffers, resulting in incessant criticism that politics has failed to deliver; though such inadequacy in the capacity of the civilian political regime to deliver in turn is blamed on an inordinate intervention of the military in civilian affairs. Even if partially true, it takes the spotlight off the shortcomings of the political system itself. Failure or mediocrity thus spawns further failure and sustains weaknesses.
So, our governments don’t deliver, the politics is weak, the state structures have decayed, and the military seems overly assertive. Forget what the TTP and the like are rending this weak state to – continuous reverberations seeking that one final push meant to fell the entire state and societal structure. Fears, bridled till now, of the ignominy of dissolution, or of an experiment failed before it blossomed, instead loom.
Our final straw is Imran Khan, with a hope that the remedy is round the corner only if such a magical moment were let to arrive. In such assumption we fail to register how badly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is doing under the PTI order; forget the spin that most PTI-walas want to add to such dismalness. When you are stuck with structures that have either decayed or are beyond repair, a mere change of face at the top will mean nothing. It is time to accept that we must review, rebuild and reconstitute our state structures to make them compatible with our needs. The ones we have aren’t delivering. Period.
What are we politically? A half presidential and half parliamentary structure? The interventions by the military over our history have not only caused misperceptions of its lingering assertion, they have also polluted the democratic sense of the people and society at large where every executive is expected to exercise authority like a president – and conveniently behaves as one.
Elected prime ministers happily comply, partaking off the state and its coffers the benefits of an executive head without being accountable to the larger majority of the country. The nature of our democracy bestows upon them such favours. One province (Punjab with 148 of the 272 electable seats in the National Assembly) can enthrone a president-like prime minister over us without being answerable to the other three and contingent territories. This dichotomy engenders serious functional and attitudinal anomalies.
The elected PMs, though creatures of parliament, undermine its efficacy by keeping above the fray of parliamentary politics by not including it in matters of policy and governance, and by implication cause democratic structures to underperform. Such diminution of parliament means that there is neither serious political debate there, nor is a direction sought or given to the executive per the collective political wisdom of people’s representatives. In a democratic system, the very people – the essence in a democratic system – remain disenfranchised from the process of governance. Parliaments fail to exercise effective checks over the executive, and the institutional input remains seriously lacking. Only the shell remains – parliament long having lost its potency.
The rhythm of the Pakistani society is more attuned to an assertive leadership, synonymous with presidential democracy, though that almost immediately invites serious agitation. In the larger perception of civil society and political activism, tinkering with the parliamentary form of government is akin to ushering in non-democratic attitudes and hence by implication a regression to autocracy. We need to look beyond such restrictive interpretation.
Assertiveness is needed to ensure that democracy delivers, governs, and administers with an efficiency that can only come with the strict application of rule of law, adherence to processes and procedures and stringent accountability wherever power – administrative and fiscal – is placed. An executive with enhanced powers supported by a cabinet with greater professional and intellectual wisdom can assure such fidelity in functioning.
A presidential form of government in Pakistan’s historical experience was inalienably linked to the one-unit structure, and inter-alia the military rule. As such its reflux replacement was sought in a federated structure where provincial autonomy of the constituent units was the new essence. It was assumed that only a parliamentary form of government could keep a federation alive.
In actuality, the United States of America is a federated form that has a powerful president and an equally powerful Congress who act as a check on each other. The French model suits even better the political sense of our people where a hybrid political structure is more akin to our cultivated sensitivity towards a parliamentary structure of internal governance, while retaining the role of an empowered president and a competent Cabinet.
In the current system the prime minister and his cabinet must come from parliament where the quality hasn’t risen beyond the very basic level, sadly. This will need to change. In a presidential system, if we ever revert to it, the role of the legislator will become even more important when checks are needed to be exercised on a more powerful president. That will need a qualitative change in how the parliamentary system of committees is enacted with legislators who are intellectually empowered.
What do I propose then to restructure our political system? A directly elected president invested in all parts of the country for political support; a prime minister from among the elected members in the National Assembly as is currently in vogue except that such prime minister will be nominated by president, and must win a vote of confidence from the Assembly. The prime minister will work under the president as the lead minister and represent the government in parliament as the leader of the House.
The president and the prime minister together will choose a cabinet of ministers, not restricted to elected members only, but from outside parliament as well; except that those inducted in the cabinet from within the elected parliament will lose their seats in parliament, to which necessary replacements can then be chosen through appropriate by-elections. The cabinet members will remain answerable to parliament through the select committees and through participation in parliament on invitation.
The provincial governments will continue to be chosen in their current manner without disturbing their structures or their processes. This will put to rest any apprehension towards political autonomy under a presidential system. The centre must retain responsibility for national security, defence, foreign affairs and finance as primary functions while assisting the provinces through policy interventions in other areas. All appointments proposed to various institutions of the state must be ratified by parliament; this should include the appointments of the chief justice and services chiefs.
Will Nawaz Sharif as president be any different? Perhaps not; but then he will also not be able to make president just because his party won a thumping majority in Punjab. He will need to be invested in all parts of Pakistan and will remain answerable to them. A balance between the executive and the legislature is the key to democratic governance. Sovereignty of parliament is ensured by making all institutions and institutional structures answerable to parliament.
Parliament will not only make laws but will also oversee its implementation. It will also debate policy and give it public ownership. That might revert some balance back in our national structures. It is time we made the move.