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How big should the cabinet be?

October 12, 2018

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The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

RECENTLY, Prime Minister Imran Khan expanded his cabinet. It has led to a fresh round of questions asked each time a cabinet is formed or expanded. In essence, the questions are reduced to a single query: what should be the right size of the cabinet? This question can be looked at from various angles.

Our Constitution amended through the 18th Amendment put a cap on the size of the cabinet. Article 92 requires that the number of ministers and ministers of state in the federal cabinet should not exceed 11 per cent of the total membership of parliament. Since parliament comprises two houses — the National Assembly comprising 342 members and the Senate consisting of 104 members or a combined strength of 446 — the 11pc comes to 49, so the total cabinet size should not exceed this number. The current size of the federal cabinet, with 24 ministers and six ministers of state totalling 30 or less than 7pc of the total membership of parliament is well within the maximum number allowed by the Constitution.

One can compare the present size of the federal cabinet with other democratic counties to get an idea of where we stand. The present Indian cabinet comprises 77 members out of which 26 are full ministers and 51 are ministers of state. This cabinet forms about 9.6pc of the total membership of the Indian parliament which comprises 802 members including 552 members of the Lok Sabha and 250 members of the Rajya Sabha. The current British cabinet has 21 members and considering just their House of Commons which has 650 members, this cabinet is about 3pc of the total membership. The current US cabinet has 15 members but since the US has a presidential form of government and Congress members are not eligible to become cabinet members, there is no pressure on the president to include congressional members in the cabinet. The US example is therefore not valid in Pakistan.

We can get another view of the size of the cabinet by comparing it with past cabinets in Pakistan. Pakistan has had some 48 cabinets in the past 70 years. Before the adoption of 1973 Constitution when the country comprised both East and West Pakistan, the cabinet size seldom exceeded 20. There were 16 cabinets before the 1973 Constitution became operative and only two of them had members exceeding 20, the average size of the cabinet being less than 16.

A ruling party, like the present one, has coalition partners and they have to be kept in good humour.

The cabinet size started growing gradually as populist politics gained ground after the advent of the 1973 Constitution and touched a peak during the prime ministership of Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani from 2008 to 2012 when the cabinet swelled to 66 members with 47 ministers and 19 ministers of state. In recent times, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s cabinet became a relatively large one with 55 members including 35 ministers and 20 ministers of state. The average size of the past 47 cabinets works out to be 26 but if the caretaker cabinets and cabinets of various military rulers and presidents are excluded, the average size under parliamentary governments is 36. In this sense, one may consider the present Imran Khan cabinet to be below the average size of the past cabinets.

Yet another way to look at the size of the cabinet is on the basis of the need of ministers. Presently, the federal government has 34 ministries. Normally, each ministry should have a minister but the number of ministries is not based on rationality or need. Ministries have generally been created in the past to accommodate more MPs as ministers or ministers of state. A cursory review of the list of ministries indicates that the number of ministries can be reduced to around 20 which was the norm before the advent of 1973 Constitution.

For example, the Ministry of Post has been a part of the Ministry of Communication in the past and can again be made its part. The Ministry of Human Rights has been a part of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. There is no need for a separate petroleum minister when there is an energy minister. The Ministry of Narcotics Control should go back to the interior ministry. Defence production should be made a part of the Ministry of Defence. After devolution to the provinces, such portfolios as education, health, food security and science & technology may be combined under one ministry. Parliamentary affairs have been a part of the Ministry of Law and can go back there. These mergers of ministries and reduction of portfolios are in line with the austerity programme of the PTI government. If one looks at the size of the current cabinet from the angle of pure need and austerity, it appears slightly oversized — 20 to 25 should have been the upper limit.

Another, and most of the time overriding, consideration for inducting ministers is political. A ruling party, like the present one, has coalition partners and they have to be kept in good humour. Of the 24 ministers in the present cabinet, eight or one-third belong to allied parties of the PTI. In addition, the ruling party has to keep various groups within the party happy. This consideration becomes the most important constraint for heads of governments because sometimes the survival of a government may depend on this. The large PPP cabinet under Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani was created under the same compulsion. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi formed a large cabinet immediately before going into the general election as so many party loyalists had to be accommodated before entering the electoral battlefield. This is the reason that the average size of the cabinets under democratic parliamentary regimes had been much larger (35) than the average size under military rulers and presidential systems (18) in Pakistan.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018