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Two faces of democracy

April 12, 2019

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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.

IT seems that a section of population in Pakistan is perpetually infatuated by the presidential form of government. Although a unanimously passed Constitution of 1973 had settled the question in favour of a parliamentary system 46 years ago, the question keeps coming back periodically. At times, it seems as if some interested quarters are test-ballooning to see if a critical mass of public opinion is supportive of the presidential system. The question is once again doing the rounds these days, especially on social media and some electronic media outlets.

Despite the passionate pleading by some media persons, there doesn’t seem to be any real support on the ground for a shift to the presidential form. None of the federal or provincial legislatures have ever debated the question, what to talk of passing any resolution in support of the presidential system.

Even if there is little support for the presidential system, there is nothing wrong in expressing opinions in its favour or advancing arguments in its support. It is equally acceptable that advocates of the presidential system try to convince public opinion in favour of their point of view using the democratic means available to everyone.

A healthy debate based on logic, facts and figures is a part of the democratic culture and if at any point in time the majority of public opinion turns in favour of the presidential system manifesting in a referendum, and both houses of the parliament amend the constitution accordingly, there will be nothing wrong in making the switch. After all, Sri Lanka made that switch following democratic norms some years back and Turkey has done the same only a year ago.

Neither the presidential nor the parliamentary form of government is a guarantee against instability.

It is, however, surprising that when there are more pressing issues facing democracy in Pakistan, a segment of public opinion considers it important to debate the pros and cons of the presidential system. The subject of an effective local government system, for example, is far more central to the cause of deepening democracy and bringing the fruits of democracy to the grass-roots level. The question about the type of local government system is urgent too as the provincial governments are busy shaping the future local government system in each province ahead of the next local government elections.

There seems to be a consistent support for a parliamentary form of government in Pakistan over the past many years. The first constitution of Pakistan was passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1956 which provided for a parliamentary form of government. Earlier, Pakistan had inherited a parliamentary form of government from Britain after independence and continued practising it for 11 years when a military coup toppled the government of prime minister Sir Feroze Khan Noon in 1958. The 1956 constitution was abrogated following the declaration of martial law and the military leader General Ayub Khan experimented with a unique form of presidential system which had to be abandoned under widespread public agitation leading to another martial law in 1969. When the country returned to democracy after the traumatic period of martial law, a civil war and dismemberment of the country, a new constitution was unanimously passed in 1973 which again provided for a parliamentary form of government. Despite the military interventions and extended military rules, the 1973 Constitution and the parliamentary form of government returned whenever democracy was restored. It is because of consistent public sanction that the Constitution and the parliamentary system of government continue in Pakistan to date.

Ten general elections have been conducted in Pakistan under the 1973 Constitution so far but the change in the system of government never figured as an issue in any of these elections. A review of the election manifestos of major political parties further testifies that none of the mainstream political parties has ever proposed the presidential form of government. All these facts indicate that changing the parliamentary form of government to a presidential system has never been a public issue or an issue among the political parties and legislatures.

The presidential system is usually preferred because it is considered relatively stable whereas prime ministers can be removed with relative ease through a no-confidence motion passed with a simple majority. Over a period of time, the Constitution has evolved and so has the parliamentary form of government in such a way that most of the shortcomings associated with it have been overcome. Because of the frequent changes in governments during the initial 11 years of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, several provisions were built into the 1973 Constitution to guard against political instability.

The Constitution has further evolved since and the prime minister’s position has proven to be quite stable, at least politically. Judicial, military and presidential interventions aside, no prime minister has been removed through a no-trust motion in the National Assembly since the passage of the 1973 Constitution. The presidential power to dissolve the National Assembly and send the prime minister home which was introduced and reintroduced into the Constitution by the military rulers has also been done away with. Floor-crossing by members of the National Assembly to destabilise the government has also been made extremely difficult through constitutional provisions. With these innovative provisions, the parliamentary system in Pakistan has become almost as stable as a presidential system.

Even in a presidential system like that in the US, the stalemate between the legislature and the president can’t be ruled out. There have been several breakdowns in the past years including a recent one in the US federal government because of differences between the Congress and the president on the budget. The argument of instability is therefore equally applicable to a presidential form of government.

Pakistan has been successfully practising the parliamentary system for the last many decades and there is apparently no justification to artificially replace it with a presidential system under the pretext of a mythical instability.

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

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2019