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The issue is democracy

August 03, 2017

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WHENEVER an abnormal change in Pakistan’s political superstructure has taken place, mostly in the form of coups against elected governments, the charge sheet against the deposed politician(s) has included some derogatory remarks about the system in vogue. The ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the prime ministership through a judicial order also will give rise to some criticism of the parliamentary democracy that allows for the kind of wrongdoings the prime minister was accused of.

The criticism of the system has, however, been quite sketchy, Ghulam Mohammad justified the sacking of the Constituent Assembly on the grounds of its failure to draft a constitution, which was incorrect. While replacing an elected government with martial law, Iskander Mirza not only abused politicians, he also denounced as unworkable the 1956 Constitution that he had sworn to uphold. Gen Ayub Khan too rejected Western democracy while condemning politicians because, firstly, democracy could not be cultivated in Pakistan’s climate and, secondly, it did not suit the genius of the people. Even such outlandish theorising was not challenged because many people were waiting to eat out of the dictator’s palm.

The man who went after the parliamentary system with a vengeance was Gen Ziaul Haq. In the beginning, he found little wrong with the 1973 Constitution except for the need to insert a few Islamic provisions, which he continued doing during the 1979-84 period. Then he noted an imbalance between the powers of the president and the prime minister and corrected it by increasing his own powers, including the acquisition of the power to sack elected governments under Article 58-2(b). Finally, he came out in favour of the presidential form of government. Unfortunately, even the Shura committee on reforms did not agree with him. That the system became presidential without being christened so was beside the point.

No system can realise its potential if it is as frequently disrupted as has happened in Pakistan.

In the course of his campaign, Gen Zia relied for a short while on a diary of the Quaid-i-Azam in which the latter was reported to have favoured the presidential system. This did not help him because between 1938 and 1940 the Quaid was rejecting any form of representative government for India as it would turn Muslims into a permanent minority. This was in continuation of the Indian Muslims’ reservations about democracy, from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan downwards. Thus, the Quaid’s observations relating mostly to the Indian context could not be applied in Pakistan.

Besides, Zia did not come to the Quaid with clean hands. He rejected Jinnah’s ideal of excluding religion from politics, his pledge of equal citizenship for non-Muslims, and his affirmation of the sovereignty of parliament; Zia feigned ignorance of the Quaid’s declaration that the Constitution would be made by the representatives of the people (except that Pakistan would be a people’s democracy). For such a person to seek the Quaid’s help, only to promote a presidential system, demanded extraordinary proficiency in dissimulation that Zia alone was capable of.

The case in favour of the parliamentary form is quite simple. It is the system ordinary citizens have become familiar with through more than a century of usage. It is based on the principle of the diffusion of power and transparent decisions, which is preferable to the concentration of power in a single person’s hands and secret rule. Further, elected representatives are accountable to the electorate to a greater degree than in other systems. This is fundamentally important in a federation as a concentration of power in the hands of the president can spell disaster. True, the performance of parliamentary democracy has not matched its promise, but no system, parliamentary or presidential, can realise its potential if it is as frequently disrupted as has happened in Pakistan.

Advocates of the presidential system claim that it is more effective but so is dictatorship; effectiveness does not always mean efficiency or public good. The argument that the presidential system allows the employment of experts to run the administration instead of less qualified ministers in the parliamentary form is based on a misconception. Governance comprises two parts — making the right choices to meet the demands of the people (and this can only be done by people’s representatives), while for the other part, namely, proper realisation of popularly chosen objectives, experts can be hired under any system.

The most decisive argument against the presidential system is that it has already been tested and found unsuitable. Powerful presidents of Pakistan, from Iskander Mirza to Zia and Pervez Musharraf, have done more harm to Pakistan than all the much-maligned leaders of the parliamentary system put together.

What is ignored in the debate on the presidential vs the parliamentary form of government is the fact that both will have difficulty in surviving in Pakistan because, to the extent they are democratic in character, they are not in accord with the culture of the rulers or the ruled. Democracy cannot flourish in a country that permits belief-based discrimination, where women suffer patriarchy at its worst, where pseudo-religious practices are treated as divinely ordained, where feudal norms dominate and land reform is forbidden by law (and the Supreme Court cannot decide the challenge to this gross injustice for years), and where civilian authority holds power at the pleasure of the military. Because of these factors, no attempt to improve the system — through controlled democracy, the induction of technocrats in parliament, restricting parliament’s membership to graduates, and emphasis on the bogey of morality — has been fruitful. The main charge against all the governments that we have had is that they failed to remove the boulders lying across the path to a democratic dispensation.

The problem is that democracy cannot be abandoned, for to be ruled by elected representatives is a basic human right. And the people of Pakistan have confirmed their allegiance to democracy by sweeping away dictatorships every few years. Respect for that will of the people is the only issue in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2017