WHETHER Pakistan will be better off with a presidential system of government or not — the debate is perennial. But the proposition now seems to have assumed a more serious connotation. There is a growing scepticism within the ruling PTI and the establishment over the viability of the existing parliamentary democracy.
In a recent media interview, President Arif Alvi revealed that the PTI has seriously been discussing whether to switch to a presidential rule. For many in the party, only a centralised power structure could ensure political and economic stability in the country. Such arguments are not new. They manifest an increasing tendency towards authoritarianism. It’s more about the crisis of governance rather than failure of parliamentary democracy.
It is apparent that Imran Khan is not comfortable working within the confines of the parliamentary system. He has been voicing his frustration at various forums. He feels constrained without absolute power. He would not even attend parliamentary sessions because of a vociferous opposition. He would not interact with the opposition leaders even on issues that require consultation according to the law and the Constitution.
Lacking a clear majority in parliament, the prime minister needs the support of the opposition to legislate, but he would not seek it. As a result, the government has failed to do any legislation in the last eight months. Can this be described as a failure of the system or as Imran Khan’s own egotism? In a parliamentary democracy one needs to learn to make compromises where they are needed. One cannot blame the opposition for one’s own ineptitude and mistakes.
An attempt to return to a centralised state will have very serious political repercussions.
Over the last 70 years, the country has alternated between authoritarian military regimes and ineffectual elected civilian rule. For most of its history, the country has been ruled by the powerful military with short spans of elected civilian democracy in between. Consequently, democratic institutions and values that are necessary to sustain parliamentary democracy have remained weak.
Still, we have seen three democratic transitions in a row. While there may be questions about the credibility of the elections, democracy has taken root, though it is still very fragile. Surely, the parliamentary system has its flaws and does not have an enviable record when it comes to performance. But a unitary form of government doesn’t provide a solution to the problems. In fact, an attempt to return to a centralised state will have very serious political repercussions. The controversy over the 18th Amendment is also a part of the move to weaken the federal structure. Such attempts could widen various political and ethnic fault lines.
What is needed is to reform the existing system rather than move toward a more centralised power structure. A major problem hindering the democratic process is that there has been no fundamental change in Pakistan’s political power structure. A small power elite has dominated the country’s political scene under both civilian and military rule. The extractive nature of the state’s institutions has prevented the country from embarking on a path of economic and political progress.
Despite the economic and social changes that have occurred over the past 70 years, the stranglehold of family-oriented politics has been perpetuated. A limited number of influential families continue to control Pakistani legislatures. A sense of dynastic entitlement dominates the country’s political culture, impeding the development of institutional democracy.
With few exceptions, almost all the political parties are an extension of powerful families with hereditary leadership. This decadent power structure has been strengthened by authoritarian military regimes that have ruled the country for the larger part of its history. The control exercised by a narrow oligarchy has impeded the critical structural reforms needed for sustainable economic development and for strengthening democratic and economic institutions.
Another challenge hindering the democratic process is that Pakistani politics has increasingly become region-based, with even the mainstream national political parties now focusing on their provincial strongholds. This regionalisation of politics has also been a factor in the country’s failure to build a national narrative on critical issues. While the 18th Amendment has turned Pakistan into a truly federal democracy by giving the provinces greater autonomy, the failure to further devolve power remains a major problem.
Some promoters of the presidential form of government contend that the economy performs much better under authoritarian regimes. This is a completely flawed argument. The relatively high economic growth achieved under military rule had mainly been driven by massive foreign aid as payback for the military’s services in various American wars.
The increasing dependence on foreign financial support had also been a major factor in our failure to carry out any structural reform that could put the country on the path to sustained economic progress. There had been very little investment in the development of human infrastructure. Education, health and population planning remained on the lowest rung of priorities.
That has been one of the major reasons for our backwardness. Imran Khan does not hide his admiration for Ayub Khan and other military rulers for their development work. But he forgets to mention much else. Thirty years of direct military rule has also been responsible for the country falling behind in all social indicators. Interestingly, all the military governments in Pakistan had tried to civilianise themselves, thus strengthening the power structure that remains the basic obstacle in the way of the development of democratic culture and economic progress.
Whether the presidential order suits the country more is a futile debate. It will not be possible for the PTI government or for the establishment to change the Constitution. Imran Khan is neither Recep Erdoğan, nor is Pakistan Turkey. A unitary form of government cannot keep a multinational country united. A presidential form of government does not provide the solution to our complex political and financial problems.
Instead of trying to change the system, the government must focus on removing the shortcomings in the existing political order by working with other political forces. The country cannot afford to experiment with a system that has long been thrown into the dustbin of history.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2019