Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In his controversial book Pakistan’s ISI: Covert Action and Internal Operations, Owen L. Sirrs writes that Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto, wanted a presidential system to replace the parliamentary one that had elected him. Economist and author Shahid Javed Burki, in his 1980 book Pakistan under Bhutto, 1971-1977, also mentions that Bhutto desired a presidential form of democracy.

Sirrs writes that Bhutto had enjoyed numerous executive powers when he replaced Yahya Khan as president and chief martial law administrator in December 1971. However, his government transformed Pakistan into a parliamentary democracy in 1973 and Bhutto became prime minister. Burki suggests that Bhutto did this because his party’s manifesto had advocated parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, since the fate and workings of the executive in parliamentary democracy are closely related to the legislative assemblies, this meant that PM Bhutto had to let go of the powers that were at his disposal as president.

Even though his party had a majority in the national assembly, Bhutto struggled to navigate around the interests of his party’s elected legislators, to fully enact the kind of reforms he wanted to. On many occasions, he had to compromise to keep his own MNAs and MPAs happy, let alone dealing in this context with the opposition. Being an ambitious politician, he wanted to wield power without the many constitutional checks and balances which assemblies are armed with, including having the power to dismiss a PM through a ‘no confidence’ move.

There is understandable scepticism in Pakistan at the calls for adopting a presidential system of government. But aside from its history, it’s instructive to look at whether a presidential system is actually more politically stable

In a presidential system, the executive and the legislature are independent bodies. The assemblies cannot dismiss a president who is directly elected by the electorate. The president can also appoint non-elected members as ministers in his or her cabinet. Former ideologue of Bhutto’s PPP, Dr Mubashir Hasan, in his 2001 book The Mirage of Power, more than alludes that Bhutto was looking for a big win in the 1977 election so that he could use his party’s majority in the assemblies to constitutionally change Pakistan’s parliamentary form of government to a presidential one.

Bhutto was confident of winning a majority. But once it was realised that a united opposition alliance had the potential to curtail his ambition in this respect, government officials handling the polling went overboard in rigging the election on various seats, especially in Punjab.

All four military dictators who ruled Pakistan during various stages preferred the presidential system. This is one reason why even the mention of this system raises many eyebrows. Recently, as the establishment-backed PTI government of Imran Khan faces increasing criticism on its handling of the country’s floundering economy, talk of replacing Pakistan’s parliamentary system with a presidential one can be heard again from certain quarters. The perception being developed by such talk is that PTI’s wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly and lack of elected ministerial talent within the party has left PM Khan’s reformist agenda reeling.

What has made this (coy) call for a presidential system even more suspect is that some are calling it an ‘Islamic presidential system.’ Truth is, anything in Pakistan with the prefix ‘Islamic’ has and should draw immediate scepticism, because it has always been cynically used — often causing more confusion than resolution. Ideas in this regard have been nothing more than convoluted rhetorical drivel.

Some are suggesting that an ‘Islamic presidential system’ has something to do with Allama Iqbal’s idea of democracy. But according to L.A. Shirvani’s 2005 book Writings, Speeches and Lectures of Iqbal, Iqbal believed that a Muslim polity should elect a National Assembly made up of members who were well-versed in both Islamic as well as modern (secular) sciences, laws and philosophies. Such an assembly would make sure that the political and economic interests of the polity are advanced according to the progressive spirit of its faith and a consensus (Ijma) is reached which is representative of the electorate. Iqbal was also in favour of ijtihad (independent reasoning). Jinnah had interpreted this as parliamentary democracy, which it was. But one should also keep in mind that Iqbal was a poet and philosopher par excellence and not a political scientist.

But what if we investigate the presidential system without the scepticism associated with it in Pakistan? The famous Spanish sociologist Juan Jose Linz in his 2006 essay, ‘The Perils of Democracy,’ and Harvard University’s Prof S. Mainwaring in Presidentialism, Multipartism and Democracy write that, historically, the parliamentary system has performed better and provided more stable democracies than presidential systems. Since the executive and the legislature are independent from each other in the presidential system, Linz and Mainwaring find the gap between the two as a flaw which could lead to a clash. Linz also worries that ‘the rigidity of presidential system can create a profound suspicion of the personalisation of power.’ The president is not accountable to the legislature as a prime minister is in a parliamentary system.

According to Mainwaring’s 1993 study, ‘presidential systems have not fared well. Only seven of 31 (22.6 percent) presidential democracies have endured for at least 25 consecutive years, compared with 25 of 44 parliamentary systems (56.8 percent). Linz points out that smaller parties lose out in the presidential system. This can become a problem in multicultural countries where groups represented by smaller parties may find themselves left out from the country’s legislative process.

However, the West African researcher J. Luengo’s 2006 essay, ‘Democracy and Civil War in Sri Lanka’ demonstrates how the adoption of parliamentary democracy by Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) in 1948 actually sent the country into a deadly spiral of ethnic tensions and warfare. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority had felt that, during the British rule, it had been subjugated by the region’s pro-British Tamil minority. After independence, parliamentary democracy brought populist Sinhalese nationalist parties into power who began to implement policies which alienated the Tamils. According to Luengo, this was the seed which gave birth to the long-drawn civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. In 1978, the country adopted a ‘semi-presidential system’ in which the prime minister is a secondary figure. It’s a hybrid system like the one practised in France. But this system can cause problems when the directly elected president belongs to a party that fails to bag a majority in parliament. The result can be a deadlock.

There is nothing wrong in debating what democratic system should Pakistan adopt. But this debate is premature in a country where parliamentary democracy has not yet been given the kind of uninterrupted run that it requires before one can seriously critique it or, moreover, advocate its replacement with a presidential democracy.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 28th, 2019

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