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Debate on presidential system

April 18, 2019

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THERE has always been an urge in this country to invent and innovate, in the name of the people and good governance, out of frustration, more ambition. Pakistan experimented with various ideas in constitutional law before settling for the 1973 Constitution. There have been military dictators imposing themselves on people and political leaders dreaming of capturing absolute power as ‘amirul momineen’. And just as the country trudges along a difficult path towards some kind of clean, stable and efficient governance, in a throwback to the times when talk about a central benevolent authority, the ‘mard-i-momin’ or the ‘mard-i-haq’ was at its peak, the long-sleeping giant — the alternative known as the presidential system — is back roaring again. Don’t we know the menu from our previous visits to that territory? The innovators are going to remind us we need to throw away the yoke and be liberated, served by an equally democratic system crafted to serve our needs, where the president is directly elected since they already have in mind that someone to run the country under the new system.

Gen Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Gen Ziaul Haq, Mian Nawaz Sharif, Gen Pervez Musharraf have all in their time been blessed with advisers favouring a presidential system for them. However, the fault lies not in the tools but the hands which operate them. The Pakistani system may be feeble, even inadequate, but that is because it has not been allowed to develop in the light of popular experiences with power. Too many doubters have been allowed centre stage and conspiracies given space to flourish. What is needed is a categorical snub to these self-serving leaders who pretend to guide us from our ‘perpetual backward state’ by doing away with an 18th Amendment here and an almost child-like talk there of bringing in a presidential system. Instead of engaging in this debate, the opposition should firmly remind them that this parliament is not mandated to change the structure of the Constitution into one that establishes a presidential form of government. In order to do so, it will have to do away with the Constitution, elect a constituent assembly and go for a presidential system. The alternative is a referendum on the issue, on which the Constitution is vague if not silent.

This latest round of debate on the presidential system could well have been necessitated by an inability to generate enough opposition to the 18th Amendment — which is found troublesome enough for many of the current lot of rulers to publicly wish its demise. Very recently, the PTI was loudly introducing a fully representative system at the local government level. Given the fate of those who flirted with the idea of a new system in the past, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his well-wishers would be best advised to concentrate on improving and rebuilding that lower end of the system.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2019