Why presidential?

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The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IN recent days, #WeWantPresidential­System trended on Twitter twice. Some quarters appear frustrated by the compromises and concessions that governments must inevitably make in a parliamentary system. PTI supporters claim that Pakistan would be better off with a presidential system where the president can implement his vision and policy with greater freedom and autonomy.

The view is gravely mistaken.

Most societies are heterogeneous. They include people from diverse backgrounds and different sub-national identities united by a common flag. But a diverse society is not necessarily a divided society. Sujit Choudhary, for instance, has argued that what really separates divided societies from other heterogeneous societies is that in the former markers of sub-national identity such as race, ethnicity, language or religious sect are particularly salient. They serve as important bases for political mobilisation.

On this account, it should come as no surprise why scholars of constitutional design categorise Pakistan as a divided society. Political mobilisation in Pakistan has historically been based upon strong regional identities. Consider how the PPP is limited to Sindh, the ANP to KP, the PML-N to Punjab and the BNP to Balochistan. No single political party is truly national.

These parties are also divided along ethno-linguistic lines. It is perceived that the torch-bearers of the Sindhis is the PPP, for the Pakhtuns it is the ANP and for Mohajirs the MQM. Each party has found it difficult to develop a strong base beyond the group with which it has come to be associated.

Presidential rule can increase feelings of marginalisation.

Getting this classification right is critical because it determines what kind of constitutional design is suited for that country. For divided societies like Pakistan, where serious challenges are posed by ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural differences, the Constitution should encourage the formation of broad coalitions that allows as many of the sub-national groups as possible to have a voice in the political process. This is possible only in a parliamentary system where the government must accommodate others and retain the confidence of the majority to stay in power.

In a presidential system where the president is directly elected by the people, the executive power of the state is concentrated in the office of one person. That person can, by definition, belong to — and be representative of — just one group. The system, thus, has the potential to aggravate the vulnerability of other groups by engendering feelings of marginalisation. No wonder each spell of presidential rule in Pakistan has ended with a demand for greater power-sharing, followed by an eventual shift to a parliamentary form of government.

For a divided society though, a parliamentary system is not enough. Constitutional theory suggests that in such countries power-sharing must be coupled with group autonomy by using federalism to guarantee each group or sub-national identity a degree of control and autonomy within a pre-determined sphere.

It posits that this should be done by carving up the internal territory of a state in such a manner that each group or sub-national identity is regionally concentrated in one area. The area so carved is then guaranteed autonomy by giving it legislative, executive and financial powers through the federal structure in the constitution.

India realised this many years ago when it started to realign its states along ethno-linguistic lines. The first time was in 1953 when Andhra was created for the Telugu-speaking people. Fears that carving internal units along such lines and granting them autonomy would fuel secessionist tendencies turned out to be wrong. Instead, the redrawing of state boundaries strengthened the Indian union as each ethno-lingual group got an important voice and stake in the process.

Unlike India, Pakistan inherited a territory where each ethno-lingual group was already concentrated regionally: the Punjabis in Punjab, the Sindhis in Sindh, the Baloch in Balochistan and the Pakhtun in KP. Carving up new units and territories was not required. All that was needed was to empower the provinces that were already divided along ethno-linguistic lines.

It is unfortunate that for a large part of our history, we chose not to do so despite repeated demands by the provinces. The 18th Amendment finally fixed that in 2010.

It was a sensible design choice that has now given greater autonomy to the provinces and the ethno-linguistic groups that live there. Unless we want to risk alienating the Pakhtuns and the Baloch further, the 18th Amendment should stay and so should the parliamentary form of government guaranteed by the Constitution.

Presidential systems have worked in countries that are relatively homogenous. Pakistan is not one of them. Transplanting that system in a country like ours will weaken the federation, not strengthen it. But then again, who cares what happens in the long run?

The writer is a lawyer.

b.soofi@gmail.com

Twitter: bbsoofi

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2019