Presidential system?

Published January 22, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

PREDICTABILITY is such a bore.

But here we are, back on the same track, to the surprise of absolutely no one. This time too, like clockwork, the air is reverberating with renewed calls for transforming Pakistan back to a presidential system. No one who believes he or she is anyone will say this on record, yet, but the amusing anonymity of the usual suspects hides in plain sight. Scroll through social media feeds and you can marvel at the ingenuity of those whose genius is peeking through the folds of what they believe is a deniable campaign.

Editorial: Emergency rumours

Sounds familiar? It should. We have been down this path, oh, probably most of the seven decades of our existence. Presidential this, parliamentary that, blah, blah and blah. Been there, seen it. Suffered for it. Today governance in Pakistan is a wreck not because of trying various permutations of representative and non-representative forms of statecraft, but for reasons that are so obvious no one — especially the leaders — want to admit.

So after years and years of governance ailments, are the citizens finally ready to tell their leaders what really needs fixing? Here goes:

Presidential this, parliamentary that, blah, blah and blah. Been there, seen it. Suffered for it.

  1. Fix the voting system. Before reaching for the stars of the presidential system and the moons of the parliamentary system, can we get a handle on how to make the vote count? A long line of Napoleons, Churchills and Ataturks have taken their turns actualising their destinies at the expense of the hapless citizens of Pakistan but none has had the political, ethical and moral courage to fix the foundation stone of democracy — voting. As long as democracy continues to mean Daska, we shall continue to try dig ourselves out of the hole of systemic changes that we insist are the panacea for our ailments. They are not. System is not to blame for this failure — leaders are. All of them.

  2. Fix the electoral system. There’s something terribly rotten in the state when barriers to entry in the electoral system are so high that only a select few can participate. Forget presidential and parliamentary, recognise the real problem ingrained deep inside the bowels of the structure that empowers the well-resourced to shut the electioneering door on anyone who doesn’t have the kind of money to contest. It is a closed system. How can a closed system that disenfranchises an overwhelming majority of its citizens from contesting, be classified as a representative system? When the catchment area of true talent is so limited, you will get the crass material on display. System is not to blame for this failure — leaders are. All of them.

  3. Fix the police. A predatory state is exemplified by a predatory police. For decades this force has been the handmaiden for all kinds of skullduggery in the name of democracy. It has been as ruthless, inefficient and corrupt under a presidential system as it is in a parliamentary system. Imran Khan is the latest in a long line of leaders who promised police reform and buried it with all other good intentions when in power. Police is the most visible, most impactful and most direct link of the executive with the people. It should have been the first institution to be set right. Instead all our presidentials along with choir boys and all our parliamentaries with their chorus girls have taken turns to use and abuse the police to burnish their democratic credentials. If today police exemplifies a key glaring failure of governance reform in Pakistan, the system is not to blame for this failure — leaders are. All of them.

  4. Fix the criminal justice system. Name one citizen who does not think this system is corrupt and broken; name one citizen who believes he or she can get swift and affordable justice through this system; and name one citizen who believes that the system has improved, even marginally, over various presidential and parliamentary decades. Name one. All our Napoleons, Churchills and Ataturks have come and gone without fixing this most basic, most fundamental and most obvious pillar of democracy — presidential or otherwise. Some had all the power in the world, other less so, but all had one thing in common — an unwillingness to fix what needed to be fixed the most. Today the citizens suffer because these presidentials along with their choir boys and these parliamentaries with their chorus girls opted to become abject failures in doing their democratic duty. System is not to blame for this failure — leaders are. All of them.

  5. Fix the rule of law. Merit be damned. Rights be damned. Have power, will abuse. Some stories never change. How hard is it for a leader to implement the Constitution if he or she really means to? But when presidentials violate the Constitution undemocratically and parliamentaries violate it democratically, the difference is of degree, and of which article has been violated. Experiments with systems have all happened at the expense of the Constitution. There is a legal way to amend the Constitution. There’s also the illegal way that has been done time and again. The results are before us. If today our presidentials and their choir boys, and our parliamentaries along with their chorus girls cannot understand that systems are a product of democratic consensus as expressed through democratic institutions, then no surprise — really — that we are, in essence, chasing our collective tail. System is not to blame for this failure — leaders are. All of them.

Read more: The truth about the all-powerful presidents in Pakistan

This latest debate on the presidential system — choreographed or otherwise — is as useless as the one before that, and the one before that. It is useless because it misdiagnoses what ails our governance, and more importantly, who ails our governance. It is in fact depressing to realise that after all these decades the only lesson we have learnt from our presidentials and their choir boys, and the parliamentarians and their chorus girls, is that we have learnt no lesson. But then, you already knew that.

Predictability is such a bore.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2022



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