OUR deep state strikes around every 20 years: 1958, 1977, 1999, and then 2018. The first three strikes were overt, and centralised power in its hands instantly. The ensuing regimes achieved high growth via US aid initially. But, predictably, centralised rule later failed badly in a very complex and diverse state.
Post 2018 elections, the favoured (and ruling) party) has misfired hugely. But rather than accepting blame and being embarrassed, some are using this to demand more centralisation via presidentialism and rolling back the 18th Amendment. This would transfer power from the provinces to Islamabad and from elected to unelected persons.
Major national changes must emanate from detailed written analyses and the duty for presenting this lies with those advocating change. The big clue that these are false ideas is the absence of such analyses and the use of vague media talk alone to sell them. The logic given even there is overtly faulty.
Some say that the provinces lack the capacity to carry out their new duties under the 18th Amendment, implying that it is the federal setup that has such capacity. Fact is, the federal setup consists of persons drawn from the provinces. So why should it, and not the provinces, have the capacity for provincial duties? Why is the capacity not being transferred? Also, the way it has dealt with many complex issues, eg circular debt, raises doubts about its own capacity. In fact, capacity needs to be strengthened at both levels.
However ugly the face of devolved elected rule is, it causes much less damage.
Some say that the 18th Amendment causes huge budget deficits, although we had such deficits earlier too. The provinces should certainly collect more taxes locally, but so should the federal setup nationally. The next NFC award should increase incentives for this — there’s no reason to roll back the 18th Amendment, which has enhanced services in crucial areas like health.
Some believe that the most democratic states use the presidential systems, that presidents can appoint qualified outsiders in cabinets instead of unqualified MPs. They say if people elect chief executives directly, they will elect honest, capable people. But presidents elsewhere still come from the same parties that fill the assemblies. The same will happen in Pakistan, with those who now become prime minister then becoming president. Though elected directly, they will win via a mix of their own voters and voters bussed in by allied electables on polling day.
Later, too, presidents will be in need of electables’ support to get bills and budgets passed in parliament or even face US-type state shutdowns. They will thus owe major political debts to the electables as they do at present. They will perforce still appoint many electables or their relatives in cabinets, as they currently do for the Senate and reserved National Assembly seats, where on paper they can directly appoint able persons who can then become ministers.
The number of technocrats in cabinets may increase somewhat under presidencies. But technocrats are no panacea for all our ills. Some working for our past regimes were very shady and inept. Presidents may become less reliant on shady elected persons, but more so on shady unelected ones.
This system would not ensure good governance. Most well-governed countries have a parliamentary system, while presidential systems see misrule. This system largely fails in diverse developing states such as Pakistan. The parliamentary system has a better track record globally, regionally, and locally.
Neither a presidential system nor the rollback of the 18th Amendment would reflect proof of success. This is why one hardly sees detailed write-ups on them; there is only vague media talk. Lacking evidence, the aim is to sell them via rhetoric. The real aim behind these ideas is not the public interest, but the ‘national
interest’ — moving power from the provinces to Islamabad and from elected to unelected persons gives more control forces in favour of centralisation. Centralised power has caused much violence and damage. However ugly the face of devolved elected rule is, it causes much less damage than centralised rule in Pakistan.
Thus, we must improve the current system and not pursue false ideas. It is unclear how serious the intent is. With the recent major shake-up, many technocrats (many of them inept) have been appointed to new cabinet posts. If this change fails too, there may be an effort to centralise further via drastic steps rather than seeing the ills of centralisation.
The team has been changed. Will there be a change of captain too? But such a move would enhance the mess that unelected forces created earlier by unwisely wading into politics in the PML-N era. The way out of the mess is for them to shun politics and let political forces negotiate a solution.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan think tank.
Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019