Saturday September 18, 2021

A system for all

July 20, 2021

Not many know of what happened on September 23, 1958 in the East Pakistan assembly when a hurled paper weight hit the then deputy speaker Shahed Ali Patwary who passed away after two days.

Not all will remember what happened during the speech of the opposition leader during the budget session on June 15, 2021. For those who know and for all those who will remember, this is reminiscent of a forgotten past. This all has an aura of familiarity, as if we are trapped in an infinite loop and living the same day over and over where we always end up with stolen elections and epochs of centralized governments. Where we are always left at the mercy of self-endorsed messiahs roaring against elected political leadership and grabbing more and more power every day by holding referendums to re-elect themselves, bulldozing legislations through controlled rubber-stamp parliaments and stripping away constitutional safeguards in the name of strengthening the federation.

This is neither the first nor the last time when brand ambassadors of a centralized government are selling the idea of a presidential system to a younger generation as the only fix. The talking points are familiar – politicians are corrupt, ‘provincialism’ has weakened the federation, the democratic system is rotten and we need to fix it by rallying behind our savior to help him (it is always a he) take Islamabad for our prosperous future. From EBDO to NAB, from the politics of One Unit to the opposition of the 18th Amendment, from 1958 to 2018, the struggle of those demanding democracy, civil supremacy and devolution of power has been stalled by denying people their rightful share in resources as well as a voice in decision-making.

It is important to rephrase the argument in favour of a parliamentary system representing the interests of all federating units and devolution of power as prescribed in the constitution of 1973 to counter the flawed rationale behind installing an all-powerful president to run the federation with no accountability and no regard for democratic norms and principles. This task becomes daunting when we consider the global trend of populist candidates becoming more powerful than political parties and sowing the seed of authoritarianism everywhere.

This is alarming as in a parliamentary democracy, public approval as well as disgruntlement is channeled through political parties with grassroots and electoral support. With no student politics at campuses and a dying working class movement in Pakistan, no political party except religious parties has a grassroots support. Despite this, political parties within the parliamentary system tried to push for political stability, economic prosperity and human development, and civilian led foreign policy.

The argument in favor of a parliamentary system is simple yet elegant. Pakistan being a multilingual and multiethnic state can’t be governed by a system where all resources and powers are concentrated in one office, one person, one party or a centralized government. A centralized presidential system cannot cater to the sometimes competing and always diverse interests of all regions and ethnicities, who will resort to separatism if their socio-economic disparities, political isolation and cultural uniqueness is not engaged with by a legitimate electoral and policy making process.

The parliamentary system as envisaged in the constitution of 1973 and as reinvigorated through the 18th Amendment is based on providing a redressal mechanism in case of violations. It provides adequate safeguards by ensuring provincial autonomy for ethnic minorities from less privileged provinces and regions from the tyranny of majoritarianism and accommodates the concerns of those who have been kept out of the power corridors to prevent disenfranchisement leading to separatism. Hence, this amendment should be taken as the restorer of the balance of power between federating units.

It should be remembered that the disgruntlement of the residents of East Pakistan was not because they were a thousand miles away from West Pakistan, but because they were denied their right to channel their grievances through a political system that could cater to people of different ethnic backgrounds to form consensus on key policy issues like governance, foreign policy and distribution of resources.

The rise of separatism in non-Punjabi federating units post 1971 was not merely a product of proxy wars against Pakistan but also of forcing out elected office holders from office. The Afghan wars are not the only reason that our society is this radicalized today; on the contrary it is also a byproduct of negating Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi and Punjabi nationalism to forge one homogenous troop of people. The current chaos of governance is not a result of provinces with a fair share in resources and powers under 18th Amendment; it is because of the attempts of the incumbent government to run provincial governments through appointees of the federal government.

To break out from this spiral of systematically excluding voices and representation of people from different ethnicities, instead of rolling back devolution of power and parliamentary system we need to rethink our ideals about governance from a powerful center. A strong Pakistan is not a state that is being governed by one all-powerful president or one all-encompassing party, but a state where people with difference of opinion and interests can participate in the business of the state and can agree through a system that represents all – a parliamentary system.

The writer is a human rights defender and political activist.

Twitter: @MalaikaSRaza