The 18th Amendment was an attempt to restore the 1973 constitution to its original shape and intent and remove distortions introduced by military dictators. The devolution of powers to the provinces through the abolition of the concurrent list and the provision of constitutional protection to the 7th NFC Award were arguably the most important features of the 18th Amendment.
The framers of the 18th Amendment hoped that the devolution of powers to the provinces would allay the concerns of ethno-regional minorities and strengthen federal integrity. It was expected to pacify the grievances and concerns of Baloch and Pashtuns who had been advocating for provincial autonomy since the inception of Pakistan.
Eight years on, there is a new debate on the 18th Amendment. The key argument against the 18th Amendment is that it has weakened the federation of Pakistan. Political scientists have intensely debated the impact of ethnic federalism in managing ethnic diversity and conflicts. Some scholars have argued that it dampens and reduces ethnic conflicts; others contend that it exacerbates ethnic tensions and increases the likelihood of violent conflicts. Although the evidence for and against federalism is mixed, a few inferences can be drawn from existing literature on federalism in comparative politics.
Tenable evidence against federalism as a conflict-regulating system has been put forward by scholars who have studied post-communist regimes where the institution of federalism co-existed with a strong authoritarian form of government. In other words, federalism has exacerbated ethnic tensions in countries where it was imposed through a top-down, authoritarian model. As compared to unitary form of government and other policy alternatives, federalism has been more successful in accommodating ethnic diversity, especially in countries where ethnic minorities are geographically concentrated.
Separatist movements are often the product of a ‘refusal to federalise’ rather than federalism itself. As Nancy Bermeo, a professor at Princeton, concluded: no violent separatist movement has ever succeeded in a federal democracy.
In order to assess the impact of the 18th Amendment on federal integrity, let’s take the case of Balochistan – as it is the weakest link in the federation – and examine how devolution has affected politics in the restive province.
Balochistan was the biggest beneficiary of the 18th Amendment and the 7th NFC Award. Its share in the provincial pool jumped from five percent to 9.09 percent. In addition, the 7th NFC Award also revised the formula for the computation of the gas development surcharge (GDS) and provided for the retroactive payment of GDS arrears to Balochistan on the basis of the new formula. Moreover, the 18th Amendment gave the provinces 50 percent ownership of natural resources within their territorial boundaries and, thus, addressed a long-standing demand of the people of Balochistan.
Although the amendment was summarily rejected by Baloch hardliners and separatists as ‘too little too late’, moderate Baloch and Pashtun nationalists welcomed it and maintained that it marked the culmination of many years of struggle and sacrifice.
A dispassionate analysis of the politics of the restive province clearly reveals that the devolution of powers has strengthened centripetal forces in the provinces and stymied the growth of separatist tendencies and extreme nationalism.
First, the post-18th Amendment Balochistan witnessed a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the levels of political participation. All major Baloch and Pashtun ethno-nationalist parties, which had boycotted the 2008 general elections, re-entered the electoral fold in the 2013 general elections. Despite threats from separatist Baloch militants and reservations about the military establishment’s continued meddling in political affairs, Baloch nationalist parties contested the 2013 elections.
While there were multiple factors that shaped this decision, the devolution of powers, combined with the relative democratic consolidation in the country, served as great pull factors. Compared to previous three general elections, the 2013 polls saw the highest voter turnout in Balochistan. The participation of nationalists in elections and the subsequent formation of a government conferred much-needed legitimacy on the provincial government and weakened centrifugal forces in Balochistan.
Second, the devolution of powers and the concomitant increase in the importance of provinces as centres of political mobilisation and competition incentivised smaller regional parties to actively participate in provincial politics. This has not only led to moderation in the political rhetoric and the respective stances of these parties but has also compelled these parties to take the politics of service delivery more seriously.
The active involvement of smaller regional parties in provincial politics is likely to translate into more responsive, inclusive and accountable governance in the long run. This holds especially true in the case of Balochistan, which has traditionally been ruled by independents and state-wide parties like the PPP, PML-N and PML-Q. With almost no grassroots presence, state-wide parties in the past not only ended up exacerbating the crisis of governance but also often created crises of legitimacy.
Third, it is true that devolution has incentivised political parties with a particular regional base to think increasingly in terms of ‘regional interests’. However, this regionalisation of politics has not necessarily weakened the federation. Instead, the rise in protests along ethno-regional lines indicates the willingness of smaller ethnic groups to integrate themselves in the federation and use non-violent parliamentary means to achieve their goals. Their protests have acted as a stabilising and integrating force rather a disintegrating force.
Fourth, provincial autonomy was not, contrary to popular perception, only demanded by ethnic parties. A study of the deliberations of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms reveals that every single party with a core support base in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the JUI-F, was on the same page on the question of provincial autonomy. Therefore, any attempt to roll back the 18th Amendment is likely to threaten the integrity of the federation.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.