SOME of the recent actions by the president of Pakistan have revived the debate about the role of the president in a parliamentary system of government — specifically in our kind of parliamentary system.
President Arif Alvi had refused to act on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s advice to remove the governor of Punjab who had earlier been appointed by former PM Imran Khan. When the governor’s appointment was de-notified anyway, the president delayed the appointment of the new governor proposed by the prime minister and accepted his advice literally at the eleventh hour.
He also questioned two important pieces of legislation dealing with amendments to the electoral laws and the National Accountability Ordinance passed by parliament and refused to give his assent to the laws despite their passage by a joint sitting of parliament.
The role of the head of state is generally considered to be a ceremonial one in a Westminster-style democracy like ours. Pakistan, during the 75 years of its existence has, however, experienced various shapes, sizes and shades of head of state; among them, we have had powerful heads of state who dominated parliament for well over 55 years interspersed with short periods of complete executive authority for the prime minister — at least on paper.
Until the formulation of our first constitution in 1956, the head of state was designated the governor general. Since the governor general was the successor of the viceroy in undivided India, who had enjoyed wide-ranging powers comparable to those of the king under the Government of India Act, 1935, the governor general of Pakistan also became a powerful head of state, with executive and legislative powers.
A presidency larger than the PM’s office does not make sense in a parliamentary system of government like ours.
Pakistan had its own version of the Government of India Act, 1935, as its provisional constitution, which not only retained but, in some respects, enhanced, the powers of the governor general. The primacy of the president continued even after the adoption of a constitution in 1956 and became absolute after the declaration of martial law in 1958. This state of executive presidency continued through Gen Ayub Khan’s presidential form of government from 1962 to 1969, Gen Yahya Khan’s martial law from 1969 to 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s civilian martial law, and later the interim constitution from 1972 until the new constitution was enforced in August 1973.
Then followed a brief period of almost four years till July 1977 during which PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto enjoyed almost complete authority until another martial law led by Gen Zia struck and all powers remained concentrated in his hands for 11 long years. The president’s hold over parliament continued through the introduction of Article 58(2)(b) which empowered the president to dissolve the National Assembly, even after martial law was lifted in 1985.
Another period of empowerment of parliament and, by extension, the prime minister commenced in April 1997 when PM Nawaz Sharif’s ruling PML-N, in agreement with the opposition PPP led by Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, stripped the president of the power to dissolve the National Assembly. This parliamentary spring, however, lasted barely two and a half years as another period of military rule, with all powers accumulated in the hands of Gen Pervez Musharraf, began in October 1999. Following in the footsteps of Gen Zia, Gen Musharraf reintroduced Article 58(2)(b) to the Constitution when he restored democracy in August 2002.
Finally, president Asif Zardari persuaded his party and parliament to pass the 18th Constitutional Amendment and signed it into law in April 2010. The constitutional powers of parliament and the prime minister were once again restored through this amendment and these remain intact.
If we review the roller-coaster history of presidential powers in Pakistan, the ongoing 12-year period of relative constitutional stability constitutes the longest continuous spell of an empowered parliament and prime minister.
Generally, when the president and prime minister come from the same political party, chances of conflict between the two are minimal — with a few exceptions like that of president Farooq Leghari in Pakistan and Giani Zail Singh in India.
However, the parliamentary system comes under strain, and the limits of democracy are tested if the president and prime minister are from two different political parties opposed to each other as in the case of Pakistan at the moment. It is during times like these that one questions whether the office of president is facilitating or impeding the democratic parliamentary process and governance.
This question assumes even greater importance when it is apparent that the president’s functions are too minimal to make any meaningful contribution to the democratic process, and that all he can do is to delay the process by sitting on a ceremonial function such as signing a summary of appointment of a state functionary on the advice of the prime minister.
Since the office of the head of state — whatever the title — has enjoyed extraordinary powers for most of the time since independence, it has become bloated and turned into a huge bureaucracy.
Read: No more presidents
A cursory look at the annual budget just approved by the National Assembly shows that President House has 930 employees with an annual budget estimate of Rs1,056 million. By comparison, the Prime Minister’s Office has 785 employees and an annual budget of Rs993m. A presidency larger than the office of the prime minister does not make any sense in a parliamentary system of government like ours.
Preserving royalty as a symbolic head of state may have sentimental value for certain countries like Britain, but Pakistan doesn’t have any such compulsions.
Keeping in view the limited role which our system formally assigns to the president, and the need for being prudent in our expenditures in general, especially under the current economic conditions, isn’t it time to rethink the presidency? For example, could the presidency be combined with the office of the Senate chair so that it can become a truly functional position, along with ceremonial responsibilities?
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2022