Never-ending debate

Published January 28, 2022

PAKISTAN is gripped by a debate on the presidential system, again. From apparently nowhere, calls for this system have made their appearance on social media sites as well as some news channels. No one from the government, or associated with the ruling PTI, has officially propagated this idea but many known social media accounts supporting the presidential system are known to be partial to the government. The argument being peddled is that the limitations of the parliamentary system have hindered the governance of PTI and not provided space to Prime Minister Imran Khan to deliver on his agenda. The logic then continues that in a presidential system someone like the PM would have enough political powers to choose his team and not be beholden to parliamentarians, allies and electables who have to be handed cabinet portfolios. The latest debate is amusing in its staleness.

Almost all the arguments in favour of the presidential system fall flat when confronted with the lived experience of the system. In their exuberance to support the system, many of its proponents forget — or choose to ignore deliberately — that Pakistan has endured the system for decades and bears scars as proof. All presidents enjoyed the kind of powers that these proponents pine for, and none had anything substantive to show for them. In fact, if anything, they weakened democratic institutions as well as the federation by the centralised use of executive and legislative power. However, despite this unenviable track record, various lobbies in the country — most with vested interests — continue to propagate this system. It is fairly obvious by now that the mysterious debate that breaks out every so often is far from organic.

That said, the fact remains that the only way to actually bring about such a change in the system through a democratic process is to amend the Constitution by a two-thirds majority in parliament. We can debate the pros and cons of the presidential and parliamentary systems for as long as needed but the only way to act upon it is to follow the laid-down procedure. If those who support the presidential system want it to replace the existing system, they should get the numbers needed to make the amendment. But even this would probably not be sufficient. The Supreme Court has laid down through its judgement that the parliamentary form is the constitutional system for the country. In theory then, even if somehow parliament were to conjure up a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution, the apex court will have the power to interpret this legislation in light of its existing judgement. Hence, the debate is a futile exercise that serves little purpose other than distracting citizens from the real issues at hand. It would be best if the debate was buried once and for all.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2022

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