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The civilian ‘page’

December 08, 2018

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THE ‘same-page’ mantra has returned with force as the PTI-led federal government struggles to find its feet and deal with multiple crises, but it is not clear yet if all sides recognise that the ‘same page’ must be civilian-led both in form and substance. Seemingly compounding the problem are off-the-cuff remarks by Prime Minister Imran Khan. After a period of severe civil-military and inter-institutional strife, it is perhaps welcome that the leaderships of the federal government, the military and the superior judiciary are keen to work together in the pursuit of peace, progress and prosperity. But each of the three power centres must be mindful of their constitutional responsibilities and the limits thereof. In recent days, Prime Minister Khan has spoken effusively of inter-institutional harmony and cooperation. While such cooperation is entirely welcome where constitutionally appropriate, at moments Mr Khan’s comments have appeared to resemble those made by a junior partner thankful for a helping hand and pat on the back by other institutions.

Imran Khan is the prime minister and chief executive of Pakistan. It is through the elected office of prime minister that executive power at the federal level flows. Mr Khan appeared to have recognised the need for him to assert his constitutional authority and prerogatives when he declared that he makes the decisions and institutions support him. But there is the reality of an imbalance in power between the civilian and military sides of the state and of an intrusive superior judiciary. Those realities have combined to reduce the space for civilian governance in the country. Mr Khan will not recover that space simply by making verbal declarations; the prime minister will need to demonstrate a decision-making and policy-setting capacity that he has not so far. Certainly, the struggle for civilian supremacy is decades-old and will not be corrected by any single government, including the present one. But the starting point is surely civilian governments that are keen to fill the entire constitutional space that ruling circles have under the elected, democratic scheme of government.

If Mr Khan must be more assertive in substance and form, the leaderships of other institutions ought to reconsider their hyper visibility and excessive public comments. Perhaps the DG ISPR wanted to distance the military leadership from Prime Minister Khan’s claim that the military has endorsed the PTI manifesto, but the news conference on Thursday ventured into topics far and wide. The policy pronouncements made could surely have been avoided. Similarly, necessary as population control measures may be, it was an uncomfortable sight for judicial purists and democrats to see a sitting prime minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court share a stage and heap praise on one another. Institutional harmony is necessary and welcome, but it must remain constitutionally appropriate at all times.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2018

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