The result of the election to replace Mamnoon Hussain as president of Pakistan was never in doubt. The PTI holds a plurality of seats in the National Assembly and two of the four provincial assemblies – making its candidate Dr Arif Alvi a prohibitive favourite. Whatever doubt there was dissipated when the opposition parties could not agree to put up a joint candidate with the PML-N, MMA and ANP supporting Maulana Fazlur Rahman while the PPP putting up Aitzaz Ahsan. The position of president is essentially a powerless one now. Apart from having the right to grant pardons, the role played by the president of Pakistan is entirely ceremonial in nature. While the prime minister by function has to be a partisan political player, the president needs to act as a unifying force in a divided country. To his credit, Alvi – one of the founding members of the PTI – seemed to realise this. In his speech after securing victory, the new president said he was not just the president of the PTI but the president of the entire nation and all political parties. These words of unity were important after such a divisive election campaign and will now have to be backed up by his conduct in office.
The stance adopted by outgoing president Mamnoon Hussain should serve as a model for Alvi. Hussain was routinely mocked for being invisible and seeming to do nothing. But the 18thAmendment to the constitution makes the presidency a figurehead role. After the abuse of the office by previous occupants who used the notorious 58(2)(b) to dissolve assemblies and dismiss prime ministers, we needed presidents who respected the limits of their office. The president still has an important role to play in advising the government and meeting with foreign dignitaries. Alvi was one of the more engaged parliamentarians in the PTI and he needs to continue showing the same diligence and dedication.
For the opposition parties, meanwhile, the presidential election should lead to a period of reflection. As with the voting for the prime minister, the PML-N and the PPP could not agree on a joint candidate. In both elections, this smoothed the ground for the PTI to easily ensure the victory of its candidates. A divided opposition will be unable to hold the government accountable or vote down any of its legislation. The PTI has earned the right to demonstrate its ability to govern but eventually the opposition will need to play its role as a check on the power of the government. For that, greater unity on the opposition benches will be needed.