WE have a situation on hand in the country, caused by the premature departure of a prime minister in 44 months rather than the 60 months stipulated in the Constitution. His early exit, forced by the opposition and encouraged by the establishment’s new policy of staying ‘apolitical’, now poses an existential threat to the country as it has triggered grave economic uncertainty and invited a strong negative reaction from large sections of the public.
The untimely fall of Pakistani governments is nothing new. Research reveals that the maximum tenure a PM has held in Pakistan’s history is 50 months. This was Pakistan’s first PM, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated on the job. From Liaquat Ali Khan to Ayub Khan’s martial law regime, prime ministers lasted an average 19 months only. Only two other PMs among the 23 we have had since independence (not counting the interim PMs and military rulers) ever came close to Liaquat Ali Khan’s record: Nawaz Sharif, whose 2013-2017 stint lasted 49 months, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, who held office from March 2008 to April 2012 for 49 months.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the first PM under the 1971 Constitution in August 1973. He had till then served as president/ chief martial law administrator for a 20-month period. He lasted another 47 months as PM. Since then, 16 chief executives have taken the chair, with Shehbaz Sharif being the most recent. None of their tenures was even close to the constitutionally mandated 60 months. Of the 16, only four crossed the 40-month mark, with Nawaz Sharif and Gilani leading with 49 months each, followed by ZAB’s 47 months, and Imran Khan’s 44 months.
Only four other PMs crossed the midterm mark of 30 months: Shaukat Aziz, who lasted 39 months; Mohammad Khan Junejo, who got 38 months; Benazir Bhutto, who lasted 37 months between 1993 and 1996; and Nawaz Sharif, who lasted 32 months in his 1997-1999 tenure. The remaining eight prime ministers could only manage terms ranging from two months to 29.
There’s a case to be made for a four-year term.
What do these numbers tell us? That with our level of patience and political maturity, we should not expect our governments to last more than 48 months. Only four democratically elected leaders have ever come close to that mark in our 75-year history. The architects of our Constitution may have been inspired by the five-year term given to governments under the British parliamentary system. However, we cannot continue to wish to emulate that without regard to our completely different realities. There are also other worthy examples, like the US, which allow governments four years before they must head back to polls.
History shows that the patience of our opposition parties starts to wear thin after the 24-month mark, pushing them to start hitting the road with their ‘dharnas’. I have noticed during my days in Islamabad that even ordinary MNAs start losing interest in parliament once the government goes beyond, say, the three-year mark.
The two five-year terms completed by the PML-N and PPP between 2008 to 2018 are often held up as hope of our democracy having reached some level of maturity. However, it is worth remembering that, as they completed their respective tenures, both parties were barely hanging on to their governments, appointing lame-duck PMs, who lasted nine months each, and mainly whiled away their time.
If the length of a government’s tenure is to be curtailed, it should be given more confidence to implement its vision within the shorter time it has. The recent vote of no-confidence has worsened the fragility of our democracy. Such precedents are always a great incentive for the adventurous and also for our courts. Based on the record of the past 75 years of our history, there’s a strong case for reducing the constitutional term of parliament from five to four years.
Parliamentarians had already acknowledged the potential for mischief in votes of no-confidence and amended the Constitution to pre-empt selfish betrayals. However, there are loopholes that remain to be plugged. Consider, for example, that a turncoat can still easily vote against their party to bring it down, knowing that even if they may be disqualified for the remaining term, they can easily secure a ticket back to parliament for the next elections under a ‘deal’ with rival parties. This is like allowing people to break the speed limit on the Motorway if they can pay the fine.
The second major change that needs to be made, either through a constitutional amendment or interpretation by courts, is a clear stipulation that votes on money bills or motions of no-confidence by a member against their party should not be counted. Even the possibility of absenteeism influencing the outcome of these two types of votes should be discounted.
A shorter but more secure tenure is the way forward if we want stable governments and prime ministers who are focused on their job and not looking over their shoulder all the time.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2022