Tuesday May 28, 2024

Constitution silent on deputy PM but no bar either

PILDAT President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is not a fan of the decision to make Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar the deputy prime minister as well

By Zebunnisa Burki
April 29, 2024
Pildat President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob speaks during an event. — X/@ABMPildat/File
Pildat President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob speaks during an event. — X/@ABMPildat/File

KARACHI: The constitution does not provide for the position of a deputy prime minister but there is also no legal bar as such on such a post, say legal experts who do emphasize though that the post of a deputy prime minister — even if allowed to continue by the courts — is ceremonial at best and essentially a political decision.

PILDAT President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is not a fan of the decision to make Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar the deputy prime minister as well. Calling this “an extra-constitutional step that carries no substantial value”, he tells The News that he remembers when Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was made deputy PM [back in 2012]. “The idea was to make him feel more important. The same seems to be the intention now; the difference is that at that time it was an arrangement between two parties and now effort is being made to appease different factions within the same party. This just indicates intra-party tensions and competition for influence. It is not an admirable step because at this serious juncture of our national life and the lowest point of our economic condition, we should be focusing on substantive issues rather than taking trivial and inconsequential decisions.”

Also holding a less-than-savory view of the entire thing, lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii weighs in: “There is no pretence of law or order in the notification that has been circulated [regarding the appointment of the deputy PM] -- which is silent on where the authority to nominate someone to such a post is drawn from.”

Asked how someone becomes a deputy PM in a situation where the constitution is silent on the matter, Jaferii replies the route is “a simple one. You represent interests that are essential to the government staying in power, but aren’t powerful enough to take the government themselves.”

So where exactly does the law stand on this issue? Supreme Court Advocate Basil Nabi Malik tells The News that, while “there is no provision in the constitution for the appointment of a ‘deputy prime minister’, Article 90(2) of the constitution does allow the prime minister to act either directly or through his federal ministers (the cabinet).”

Malik says that although some may take this article as allowing the PM to “delegate his functions to any minister who may act in his absence, the more appropriate reading of the provision, coupled with others, is for the prime minister to act through his cabinet, as held by the Supreme Court itself.” He adds that “in light of the Mustafa Impex judgment of the Supreme Court, the importance of the deputy prime minister designation may be even less significant than before, and perhaps, limited as merely symbolic.”Analyst Aasiya Riaz reminds that Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was made deputy PM in 2012 though “there were no particular powers of PM given to him and it was made clear even in 2012 that no prime-ministerial powers were conferred upon him whatsoever”.Why would they come up with such a post then? Riaz feels that “it is understood to be a ceremonial thing, like a senior minister, which practically does not add any powers to Mr Dar’s portfolio. Perhaps it is to appease Mr Dar because the finance ministership was not given to him.” According to Riaz, this is open to be challenged if someone were to question it through the courts.On the matter going to the courts, constitutional lawyer Usama Khawar agrees there is no specific constitutional or legal provision for such an office, “but there is no such legal bar either”. In the past, says Khawar, “courts have dismissed legal challenges to such an appointment.” Khawar is pointing to the 2012 case in the Hyderabad circuit bench of the Sindh High Court which in July 2012 had dismissed a petition challenging the appointment of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi as deputy prime minister. As such, though, Khawar also feels that this is “more a political decision than a decision that confers legal or constitutional powers.”

Barrister Ali Tahir explains why the judicial challenges to the previous instances of the deputy PM slot were dismissed “in limini, or at the very inception.” The reason, he says, is that the “prime minister has a right to form his/her own team and can create his/her own nomenclatures.”

What this means, essentially is that “the deputy prime minister has no constitutional or legal tenure or powers. As per the Rules of Business, one can easily say that a federal minister has far more legal authority than a deputy prime minister. In fact, the deputy prime minister cannot even pass any instructions to a federal minister, a power reserved only to the prime minister. This is why the foreign minister has only been given an ‘additional responsibility’ as deputy prime minister -- because that is a post in name only without any real powers.”

On nomenclatures, Tahir makes a very interesting point. According to him, the prime minister “in the exercise of his executive authority can make people chairpersons of inspection teams, special assistants on this and that, PM’s representatives etc -- and a deputy prime minister belongs to the same rank and file.” Barrister Rida Hosain is clear as far as the constitution goes. She says: “If the framers of the constitution intended to create such a post, they would have expressly done so. The constitutional scheme is clear: there is a cabinet of ministers, with the prime minister as its head, that exercises the powers of the federal government.” In brief, she explains, “It is a term which finds no mention in the constitution. There are no additional powers or responsibilities which automatically flow as a result of being appointed ‘deputy prime minister’.”