THE demand by some powerful elements that the parliamentary form of government should be replaced with a presidential one may be taken as a continuation of a similar campaign launched by Gen Ziaul Haq in the 1980s.
Gen Zia could not change the system formally but he made so many alterations in the Constitution that the form of government in fact became presidential.
While arguing in favour of a presidential system, Zia claimed that the Quaid-i-Azam had opted for this system in a note in his diary. But the diary was not made public — only a small part of a page was released to the media — and the people could not examine the context of the observation attributed to the Quaid. Besides, the general was quite uncomfortable while invoking the Quaid-i-Azam’s name in his rhetoric as his theocratic objectives were in direct conflict with the Quaid’s political thought, especially his design for a Pakistani nation on the basis of common citizenship.
A campaign to demonise democracy, political parties and politics itself is in full swing.
Gen Zia did not mention the Quaid’s diary for long as his hands were not clean. He had overthrown a constitutional authority, an offence for which the Quaid had prescribed the death penalty before Independence. While speaking in the Indian Central Assembly on the colonial government’s decision to punish the officers of the Indian National Army, he said: “...when the time comes, my army in Pakistan shall, without doubt, maintain all loyalty, whatever the liability, and if anyone did not do so, be he a soldier or be he an officer or civilian, he will go the same way as William Joyce and John Amery.” (The two members of the English elite, the latter a son of the secretary of state for India, were executed for supporting Hitler during the Second World War.)
Since the government doesn’t have the requisite strength in parliament, the federal law minister has said that referendum will be a democratic method for a switch over to the presidential system. But a referendum on the form of government too will require a constitutional amendment. In view of the way generals Zia and Musharraf held the referenda and secured predetermined results, the people are unlikely to accept any change by referendum.
The real issue is that references to the presidential system are being made without specifying as to which of the several presidential models known to the world is being chosen for Pakistan. A proper debate will not be possible until the advocates of change put all their cards on the table.
But Pakistan has already tried the presidential system and the disastrous consequences are no secret.
Ayub Khan originally believed in a presidential system in which there were no political parties in parliament; the ministers were neither members of legislatures nor answerable to them. He imposed a constitution drafted by himself, changed the name of the state and excluded the chapter on fundamental rights from the basic law. He had to retreat but he never accepted responsibility before any democratic institution. He did not consult the National Assembly about Operation Gibraltar that led to the 1965 conflict with India, and informed it about the Tashkent Declaration only after he had signed it. He tried to buy the eastern wing’s loyalty with bribes in the name of development and to maintain order with the help of hatchet men like Monem Khan. After a decade of stability and development, the country broke up.
Some politically naive people absolve Ayub Khan of the wounds he inflicted on the polity on the grounds of the development work carried out during his dictatorship in presidential robes. They forget our struggle for freedom from the British who had established courts and universities, laid railway tracks and created the largest irrigation system in the world.
Ayub Khan’s successor, Yahya Khan, won some credit for restoring the principle of one-man one-vote, undoing One Unit and holding the country’s first general election, but he covered himself with ignominy by refusing to accept the results of the election and by pushing the country towards disintegration. All of his actions, good or bad, were taken without consulting any representative body.
Gen Zia too was a powerful president. He made a show of consulting his rufaqa (colleagues) but he took all actions on his own and was not subject to any institution’s oversight. He changed the Constitution to suit his whim and fancy. Worst of all, he pushed Pakistan into the Afghanistan conflict and made it a victim of the gun-and-drug culture.
Thus the presidents of Pakistan caused the state far greater harm than what was done by all the parliamentary leaders put together.
The choice between the presidential and parliamentary systems cannot be made by ascertaining which one of them is theoretically superior to the other. Prudence and common sense demand adoption of a system that the people are familiar with.
Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq both favoured a system that was supposed to be in accord with the people’s genius or psyche. While the people of Pakistan have surrendered more than once to dictatorial regimes, there is no evidence to suggest that they prefer bondage to freedom. On the other hand, they have brought down through their struggle and sacrifice powerful dictatorships every nine or 10 years.
Pakistan is going through hard times. A campaign to demonise democracy, political parties and politics itself is in full swing. The space for basic freedoms and the emergence of a sound public opinion has almost disappeared. The people have reason to apprehend that the move to revert to the presidential system could lead to the extinction of representative governance.
Politics being the art of the possible, all democratic groups have the responsibility to strengthen the parliamentary system that ordinary citizens have begun to understand, instead of running towards a supposedly ideal system to manage which we don’t have the required force of angels.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019