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The Pakistan presidency

August 01, 2013

THE election of a new president of Pakistan having been completed, efforts should now be concentrated on securing for the presidency the dignity that it is supposed to be guaranteed in responsible democracies.

Before discussing such efforts, one must regret the fact that Tuesday’s presidential election became quite controversial. Hopefully the unwelcome episode will be forgotten before long.

Meanwhile, the government must be felicitated on foiling the Election Commission of Pakistan’s plot to disrupt Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s plans to be in Saudi Arabia on Aug 6. His visit to the holy places this year is especially significant. Thanksgiving prayers ought to be offered at the earliest. Also in future aitkaf in Saudi Arabia may not be easy for a fully functional prime minister as the exercise demands a break from all worldly concerns and a ban on speaking — something quite hard for a politician to manage.

Circumstances over the past five decades have almost continuously undermined the prestige of the presidency. Gen Iskander Mirza, the first president, earned fame for changing the country’s prime ministers as casually as he changed his tuxedo. He also invited obloquy for proclaiming martial law and abrogating the constitution that had been enforced under his own signature.

Then we had presidents-general Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. As president, they were subservient to their rank as general. What Ayub, Yahya and Zia did in that capacity is history. Even Pervez Musharraf carried out a coup against his own regime on Nov 3, 2007 as general and not as president. The anti-democratic actions of the presidents-general considerably compromised the dignity of the presidency.

The last few years have been especially bad for the presidency’s image. The persistent vilification of President Asif Ali Zardari by the media and other actors — whether justified or not is beside the point —– made the presidency a legitimate target for ridicule, invective and slander.

It is to be hoped that all parties while exercising their right to criticise the government will do so in a manner so that the institution of the presidency is not downgraded. There is much to be learnt from the Supreme Court’s ruling against arresting a brigadier on the ground that the dignity of institutions should not be harmed.

The first thing that is needed to establish the presidency as an august symbol of the federation is to ensure that the president knows how to function within his constitutional limits. One hopes the president-elect does not share the ambition of retired justice Wajihuddin Ahmed who was reported to have said that if elected he would change the face of the country. He should have known that by himself the president cannot change even the façade of President House.

Mr Mamnoon Hussain has resigned from his party membership. His new office will demand much more than that — he will be required to completely forget his party affiliation, something easier said than done. For that reason democratic countries often choose as head of state eminent citizens instead of party loyalists.

India set a good example by electing educationists/scientist Dr Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Husain and Dr Abul Kalam although it also elected a president who was proud of polishing the prime minister’s shoes. It is a pity Pakistani kingmakers have never thought of honouring persons outside their favourites or men whose favours had to be repaid.

In the days when presidents had sweeping powers there could be a reason for ruling parties to have their trusted man (women are still out of the reckoning) in the presidency. But now the president is a ceremonial head of state and it is possible to take the risk of choosing him from among some outstanding citizens who are respected by the people both for their accomplishments and uprightness.

Some thought should also be given to making the presidential addresses to parliament meaningful. These addresses are essentially statements of what governments wish to do during their terms of office or from year to year. The president merely reads out the government brief.

In Pakistan’s polarised politics, presidential addresses have become occasions for a trial of strength between the ruling party and the opposition. The people are the losers because the objective of a rational debate on the government’s vision/programme is lost. The need for a forward movement in this area is obvious.

As the symbol of the state the presidency is looked up to by citizens in distress as the final executive authority. Our people have a long tradition of seeking relief through the presidency’s intervention.

They present their plaints to the president’s public secretariat where a generally bored factotum marks the papers to X,Y,Z and X,Y,Z reply after long delays that the case has been taken note of and there the matter ends. This is shoddy eyewash. It should be possible to ensure timely and reasonable action on public complaints to the presidency.

The president represents the state’s capacity for benevolence, for mercy. It is to serve that purpose that provisions similar to Article 45 of the Pakistan Constitution — providing for the president’s power to pardon and commute sentences — are included in the basic laws of most countries.

This article has unnecessarily been rendered controversial since the Qisas and Diyat law was enforced. Nothing has happened to extinguish the president’s powers under Article 45. In any case, the Qisas law does not affect the president’s powers in cases in which murder is not the offence. A greater exercise of the president’s power of clemency will endear the people to the state. The restrictions on the use of his authority under Article 45 must be substantially relaxed.

The non-partisan status of the president will appear in bold relief if he is seen overseeing an even-handed fulfillment of the state’s benevolent functions that have progressively been consigned to oblivion.