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President Mamnoon Hussain. —File photo
President Mamnoon Hussain. —File photo

Yesterday, President Asif Ali Zardari attended yet another farewell lunch – given by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The farewell events and the president’s departure have focused attention on his term as president.

Though it was not an easy five years for the president, he survived till the very end despite the criticism that his active involvement in partisan politics was not possible with his status as head of the state.

However, one can be certain that his successor, president-elect, Mamnoon Hussain, will not prove so assertive. After all, like Rafique Tarrar, Mr Hussain has been chosen because he will sit quietly in the house in the hill and not steal the limelight away from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, the president-elect seems to be quite fond of the media.

Since his election victory, Mr Hussain has done a fairly decent job of remaining in the media and commenting on all things political.

Within a short span of one month – even before he has moved into the presidency - Mr Hussain has given detailed interviews to almost all mainstream news television channels. Till recently, he met guests at the state guest house in Karachi.

And in order to ensure that the right quarters found out how busy and popular he was, press releases on his daily meetings and activities were issued.

And if this question was asked about Mr Zardari, it also needs to be asked about Mr Hussain.

Is it appropriate for the head of a state, who constitutionally is a symbol of the federation, to delve into controversial, political issues such as the proposed talks with the Taliban.

Appearing in a TV talk show on August 5, Mr Hussain spoke in favour of negotiating with armed militants. His argument, as has been forwarded by many others, was that if the US could engage the Taliban in Afghanistan, why could not “we in Pakistan”.

This may not be a controversial view for a member of the PML-N as the party supports this point of view. But as president elect, should he have expressed sentiments that are not shared by everyone in the country?

In the second week of August, in an interview with a newspaper, Mr Hussain spoke at length about the foreign policy options for Pakistan and added that the country’s interests could be best served by forging warm relations with India, Russia, Iran and China.

Last week, Mr Hussain in a meeting with the businessmen of Karachi, urged them to pressure the Sindh government to act against the criminal gangs involved in extortion, targeted killings and terrorism.

On the face of it, this too appeared to be a politically motivated advice rather than the actions of a neutral representative of the federation.

Mr Hussain would do well to remember that constitutionally his is a very limited role.

After the passage of the 18th Constitutional amendment, all presidential powers which the former president General Musharraf had usurped for himself, were transferred to the parliament. They now rest with the prime minister, the head of the executive.

This after all is how the Westminster model of democracy or the parliamentary form of government works, which is the model on which the Pakistani political system is based.

Due to the frequent military interventions and the tendency of khaki clad strong men to cling on to power, executive powers were concentrated in the office of the president.

However, like Mr Tarrar, Mr Hussain, the 12th president, will not enjoy any such perks and powers. He will serve as the ceremonial head that is traditionally the case in the parliamentary model.

Mr Zardari too did not enjoy any powers as a president but because of his control of the Pakistan People’s Party, which ruled in Islamabad and in Sindh, he enjoyed considerable influence – behind the scenes.

“President Zardari virtually ran the PPP government single-handedly,” commented a Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) professor of Political Science, who did not want to be named.

But regardless of what anyone thought of Mr Zardari’s decision to juggle the presidency and a political party, it would be better for the health of the democratic system in Pakistan if the next president stuck to his constitutional role.

“We need true implementation of the 1973 constitution, according to which the president is not closely associated with a political party or controversial political decisions. He should stay out of public view except on mandatory occasions,” said the professor.

It remains to be seen how the president-elect will conduct himself after formally moving into the presidency. Though his future actions may be hard to predict, it can be said with certainty that the prime minister will allow him little freedom to stray from the constitutional role.