Undoing the 18th Amendment

Updated October 29, 2018


Former president Asif Ali Zardari. — Photo/File
Former president Asif Ali Zardari. — Photo/File

IT is the oldest trick in the book of politics, and because of the clumsiness of the government and the wiliness of the opposition, it could yet work.

Ahead of what is expected to be a stormy session of the National Assembly today, former president and PPP supremo Asif Zardari has fired a shot across the bow of the PTI federal government. Linking the investigations and arrests of PPP figures to a federal conspiracy to undo the 18th Amendment, Mr Zardari has warned that any manoeuvres to unravel the historic achievement of his presidency will not succeed.

Though somewhat undermining his own argument, Mr Zardari also pointed out that it is not up to him to undo the 18th Amendment — to re-amend the Constitution and restore the pre-18th Amendment division of subjects and fiscal shares would require a parliamentary super majority.

At least two points need to be made here. First, whatever Mr Zardari’s motivations in making his latest accusation, it remains true that there are powerful federal forces arrayed against the 18th Amendment.

In the main, the argument — which is weak and should not be countenanced — against the 18th Amendment is twofold: it has diverted excessive fiscal resources towards the provinces and effectively starved the centre; and it has delegated too many powers and legislative subjects to the provinces, preventing a rationalisation of policy in key areas nationally.

But such arguments are anti-historical and against the clear scheme of the 1973 Constitution in its original form. An overdeveloped federal state suits centralising powers in the country, but runs counter to the constitutional and democratic scheme.

Moreover, the argument that the centre needs more resources and fiscal space can be addressed in part by increasing revenue collection; after all, every government and dispensation has claimed that increasing the tax-to-GDP ratio is a principal policy goal.

Second, Mr Zardari and other opposition figures ought to reconsider their approach of stoking controversy and mixing issues.

The weight of argument is in favour of Mr Zardari, the PPP and other political forces that support the 18th Amendment. But if unnecessary links are drawn to legal troubles of those political figures, there is a risk that public support for the 18th Amendment could be undermined.

After all, if Mr Zardari himself argues that there is a link between his legal troubles and the 18th Amendment, sections of the public opposed or indifferent to the politics of the PPP may consider it a price worth paying — that sacrificing the 18th Amendment is perhaps necessary to further the cause of political accountability in the country.

Surely, Mr Zardari and others can fight their legal troubles and defend the 18th Amendment separately. The 18th Amendment must be protected by democratic forces.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2018

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