THE debate over the 18th Amendment highlights the divide between the proponents of a strong centre and those of the federal system. The fear of the landmark amendment being completely rolled back or watered down may be exaggerated, but it is not without some basis. There is a growing view in the establishment and among some political groups that the amendment has weakened the state and has been a major reason for the country’s financial problems.
The debate has become politically more intense over the past one year especially after the PTI government came to power. The PPP and other opposition parties smell a conspiracy to bring back a unitary system curbing the autonomy of the federating units. There is even talk about the imposition of a presidential system.
Also read: Undoing the 18th Amendment
It is certainly not possible to undo the amendment that was passed by parliament; the consensus involved all the political parties. It could only be repealed through extrajudicial means. There is no evidence of any move to impose presidential rule. Any such adventurism would be disastrous not only for the future of democracy but also the country. The 18th Amendment has indeed been the most radical step in turning the country into a federation in line with the 1973 Constitution.
The 18th Amendment may well have contributed to the country’s remaining on the path of democracy.
Unanimously adopted by parliament in 2010 after two years of deliberations by a parliamentary committee that was represented by all the major parties, the 18th Amendment virtually overhauled the 1973 Constitution. The amendment includes 102 important articles and has made the 1973 Constitution more democratic.
Take a look: Revisiting the 18th Amendment
It struck down the 17th Amendment imposed by Gen Musharraf’s government that had undermined parliament. It returned the powers to parliament by removing Article 58(2)(b) that gave the president the power to sack an elected prime minister.
More importantly, the 18th Amendment provides the provinces with strong legislative and financial autonomy. Surely, there have been some problems of capacity and coordination between the centre and the provinces, but provincial autonomy has turned the country into a true federation by removing the basic cause of friction among the provinces on the distribution of resources. The system could be further improved by the devolution of power to local governments. Unfortunately, the political parties, which are the greatest champions of provincial autonomy, are not willing to devolve power to the lower level.
One argument put forward by the sceptics is that the administrative and financial autonomy granted to the provinces under the 18th Amendment has paved the way for a confederal structure, thus weakening the authority of the federal government. The criticism is baseless. There may be some issues related to security and finances but greater autonomy strengthens the state rather than weakening it.
A unitary form of government cannot keep a multinational country united. A major cause of political instability in the country has been the over-centralised rule under military regimes. That has also been the reason for the rise of militant nationalism in parts of the country. There is some credence to the argument that the 18th Amendment has contributed to the country’s remaining on the path of democracy with political transitions through the electoral process.
A unitary or a presidential form of government does not provide the solution to our myriad political and financial problems. Strongmen cannot bring long-term political and financial stability, a lesson we should have learnt from successive military rules that left the country more divided. In fact, federalism provides greater dynamism to the system. The provincial governments are closer to the reality and serve the people much better.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the 18th Amendment has been the restructuring of the National Finance Commission award. It increased the share of fiscal resources to the provinces to 57 per cent. The insertion of Article 160 (3A) also required that the share of the provinces in each NFC award could not be less than the share given in the previous award. The amendment also gives the control of mineral resources to the provinces, removing one of the major causes of alienation of the smaller provinces that had accused the centre of exploitation.
Critics of the 18th Amendment claim that the transfer of a large part of fiscal resources to the provinces limits the financial space for the federal government which is responsible for defence expenditure and debt servicing that constitute the biggest chunk of the budget. But many economists refute the argument saying that the federal government is still left with a surplus after paying for defence and debt servicing to meet other expenses. True, the economy is in bad shape but it is not because of the 18th Amendment. The economy is critical to national security but equally important is the continuation of the democratic process, however flawed.
There are indeed some flaws left in the amendment that are dark patches in the Constitution. While ensuring the supremacy of parliament by removing dictatorial footprints from the Constitution it retained some notorious clauses inducted by Gen Zia, seemingly under pressure from the right-wing parties.
Also some retrogressive and undemocratic clauses were introduced, including barring non-Muslims from holding the office of president. So discrimination against religious minorities has been strengthened under the 18th Amendment. But the political parties shouting from the rooftops in defence of the 18th Amendment would not mention these flaws.
Indeed, some provinces have experienced capacity problems in the discharge of their responsibilities. But that can be resolved in due course. For example, there is a need for a unified education system in the country and for streamlining provincial laws. There is also a need for revisiting some of the clauses of the amendment to remove the incongruities. While protecting the devolution of power one must accept that the Constitution is a living document and can be changed to make it more workable. This can only be done through elected representatives.
Meanwhile, any attempt to strike down the amendment — and that could only be through unconstitutional means — would be disastrous.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2019