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April 25, 2019

A myth from our times


April 25, 2019

One of the strands which runs through the narrative of modern-day Pakistani politics is that a more autocratic, presidential system is better suited to the temperament of the country and its people. We are hearing this idea propounded once again. It falls in line with the leadership style of Imran Khan, whose past experience constitutes captaining the Pakistan cricket team. Certainly, he has struggled to develop the skills required of a politician.

The unravelling of the federal cabinet, only eight months after it was set up, and Imran’s curious explanation that a change in batting order was required, is hardly satisfactory. Yes, within sporting teams formations in order can be changed. This is not true for a body intended to lead a country. Are we saying it is alright to move an incompetent person from one portfolio to another? If a minister was not capable at one post, is it acceptable to shift him to another? The formula makes very little sense. It in fact raises questions about the general understanding of the system and how it functions.

This misunderstanding extends far beyond Imran Khan himself. He is in some ways simply picking up the vibes from the environment around him. The myth goes that a president who has more powers would be better able to run the country, without being subservient to a parliament that has the power to remove him and within which many groups vie for power, making it necessary to make deals and compromises. The pros and cons of both systems have been debated tirelessly by political analysts and students of political science. They both have merits and demerits. The presidential system essentially entails a direct election of the chief executive of the country by the people or by a body specifically set up only for the purpose of electing a head of state and head of government.

The president is separated from the legislative branch of government. This makes it harder to pass legislation, and demands that checks be in place on the powers of a president. This essentially means a strong judicial system as well as other balances which sometimes exist in the possibility of impeaching a president – although the process is a long and arduous one and is rarely used. A parliamentary system may demand greater give and take and greater negotiation, but it permits direct executive involvement in legislation and averts the possibility of a chief executive being reduced to a ‘lame-duck’ ruler without a legislative majority, as has happened in the past in the US – the most powerful presidential system of all. Of course, it bypasses some of the traditional flaws of a parliamentary system, but has failings of its own.

The key point to remember perhaps is that Pakistan has experimented again and again, since the time of General Ayub Khan and beyond, with more autocratic systems. They have not succeeded in improving conditions in the country or strengthening democracy. We have seen this happen under Ayub, under Zulfikar Bhutto, under General Ziaul Haq, under Pervez Musharraf and at other times. The proposal that an ameer-ul-momineen head Pakistan has also been put forward as a way to combine an ‘Islamic’ pattern of rule with the modern running of state. It is too easy for leaders to forget that systems do not make government. People and their will do.

To move towards the ideals that the PTI laid out, it must first of all develop the art of leadership. Yes, in a traditional parliamentary democracy like ours, this is not easy. But then, difficulty is not always an adversary. It can help create stronger structures through the process of teaching people how to function within its limits. What is essential is that absolutely no attempt be made to tamper with the existing constitutional setup in the country or to alter it in any fashion. This has always hurt the country rather than helping it.

We do not need more autocracy but instead a greater willingness to engage in dialogue and discussion and the democratic process of accepting difference. If allowed to function without interruption and without intervention, our parliamentary system has the capacity to, in time, produce leaders who are able to rise above mediocrity and self-interest. There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly or immediately. But there are no guarantees a presidential system will deliver either. What is needed most of all is for people to be engaged in the process of decision-making. This is most likely to happen when many different parties are present, representing the people of a diverse and unfortunately divided nation, and are able to discuss both their points of agreement and their differences. If they are not allowed to do so, the differences will deepen and create more difficulties in future days.

We do indeed face a crisis on several fronts. There is an economic meltdown in the country as inflation continues. This is contributed to by a general sense of instability. The best way to move past this crisis is to build a team that can work towards ironing out problems. Naturally, this cannot happen overnight or even in a matter of weeks. It will take months, years, possibly decades. The initial purpose must be to set the foundation in place from where this process can begin. Unlike a cricket match, nothing can be decided within the course of 50 overs or even a five-day test match. It will take much longer for real difference to be seen. In the interim period, relief can be offered to people from their most urgent hardships by establishing a welfare-oriented system which directly looks at their concerns and involves them in resolving it.

This is essentially a matter of commitment and thought. It is not dependent on any one system or any one form of governance. Pakistan has experimented too often with too many different ways in which to run the country. Even the most autocratic of dictatorships has not succeeded in solving problems. The element that was missing was not power, or the ability to enforce orders, but vision and the consent of people. When this is visible, people see it easily. From around the world, examples exist of precisely this trait. Parliamentary systems have succeeded just as presidential ones have too. There is no magic formula.

The task of salvaging a country that has been permitted to fall apart due to many different factors will never be an easy one. When experience does not exist at the highest levels, it needs to be borrowed by listening to persons who can offer a diversity of views, understanding what they are saying and then picking the best path forward. This is what has to be done. Nothing else will work and it is best if democracy is not tinkered with any more than has already been the case. This tinkering in the past has left us more confused and more incapable than before.

We should think of all available options, but perhaps parliament is the best forum for a discussion on this and its proposals on the best way or manners in which change can be brought. Ignoring parliament or not respecting it as a body elected by the people harms us all.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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