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May 10, 2019

The president’s men


May 10, 2019

Prima facie, it is a useless debate. The matter is settled in the constitution and forms part of the basic structure which remains unalterable per Supreme Court injunctions. If ever it must be changed, it should need a constitutional underpinning through a two-third majority in parliament sanctified with legal concurrence.

Yet it remains the most opportune non-issue that serves as a distraction and as an indirect lashing of the old horse – the military. Since it has been instilled that a) a presidential system is non-democratic; b) it is something that the military desires because it has a fetish for centralizing power at one place; and c) it has only been the military dictators who instituted the position of a president in our political journey, this bogey must be buried and the insidious characterization called out.

The last first. Military dictators – four in our political history – are the literal ‘monarchs of the jungle’; they may lay eggs or directly bear children, it remains their express wish as a popular colloquial saying goes. The constitution or the agreed law is the first to be thrown out when they assume power. So really that's no reference. They are an aberration to an agreed mechanism of governance and do not form the basis of any comparison. To invoke them thus in a constitutional argument is to invite extraterrestrials to a debate on earthly humans. Yet when they needed a constitutional or political cover to their tenures they fell back to the agreed constitution and with some modifications founded their own relevance. The case of Ayub Khan and Yahya and Bhutto in succession was different and needs to be treated separately.

As soon as these presidents fell back to the constitution for legal relevance our bona-fide political class and the people were in play, who chose their prime ministers and cabinets. The first two dictator-presidents, Ayub and Yahya, were different; second a continuity of the former more or less governed on the same edifice that Ayub had created for his over ten years in power. Before Ayub, Sikandar Mirza had kicked in the presidential form of government assuming the mantle of the president. Mirza was a bureaucrat to boot.

Two elements may have forced reversion to a presidential form of government. First was the fear of perpetual domination of the Bengali majority in a one-man one-vote constitutional mandate; East Pakistanis, in the majority Bengali, were much larger in number than their western half countrymen. Second, the one-unit built into the system for parity was under increasing pressure to be dismantled by the west wing politicians which would have resulted in default ceding away of control to the eastern cousins. As evinced later in the Ayub Diaries, Ayub Khan also carried a not so hidden disdain for the Bengalis. To keep control of Pakistan in the western wing, the 1956 constitution was abrogated and a martial-law instituted. It later mutated to a hybrid democracy of strong local governments which would help sustain Ayub Khan as the President though indirect elections.

There are many reasons why Ayub’s time is recounted as one of societal stability, administrative efficiency and economic development. There was lavish support by international financial institutions which was put to productive and reformist use benefiting both society and economy. The team he was able to pick as president was perhaps the most optimal; well-reputed Pakistanis were netted from the international stage for national duties and most did a stellar job. The global and regional environment was greatly more supportive and it added to Pakistan’s confidence and regional eminence. Its military was well provided for from Western sources – the Americans – and successfully stood the test of a war, adding a feather to Ayub’s achievements.

More importantly, we were still a nation of only a 100 million people, East Pakistan included. We were still very governable and a combination of effective administrators and an exemplary bureaucracy made governance and administration much easier. The value system in society was still fairly noble and honest and people behaved well towards each other and responded well to the laws. Despite being the sixth largest country in the world it was still manageable and controllable. Lee Kuan Yew’ s model of governance was still a possibility. But then Pakistan changed in demography, in culture, in society’s value system and became generally ungovernable, too big and too messy – and difficult to run. Pakistan’s current predicaments emanate from this reality.

It also became too politicized where tribal and provincial sensitivity to autonomy with a sense of alienation began taking root when governance did not touch some remote regions. A structural recourse to smaller administrative units became too sensitive a response in an environment of parochial sensitivities and regionalism and tribalism overrode a national outlook. Today’s politics is based around brandishing similar threats when the federation is being threatened into submission by its units. A presidential system at this moment of our political journey is like showing fire to the tinderbox. That is why it remains improbable even as an idea, as we stand badly stagnated in our political evolution as a society.

The presidential form of government is as democratic as any. The Americans have run an exceptional model without centralizing powers in Washington. Its 50 states exercise exemplary independence in state laws and economies. Those powers that reside in the president are subject to effective check by the Congress. Despite recent episodes of dysfunction, it remains a robust political system which provides for solutions within. To those that follow the presidential form of democracy, the American system serves as a beacon for effective oversight of its various arms. Its committee system is the strongest anywhere in the world and serves as an outstanding model of democratic supervision. It remains strong on fundamental rights and in enabling the independence of the three branches of the state.

The British parliamentary tradition is equally good but stands on very strong moral and ethical foundations, making it susceptible to greed and manipulation if a society is weak on these fundamentals. The Pakistani political system suffers from such an ailment. France uses a hybrid presidential form where a prime minister and the cabinet are appointed by the president from the best options, not restricted to members of parliament. For Pakistan, certain changes to the governance provisions must be made where ministers may be chosen from outside of parliament and made answerable to parliament through its committees. We may then retain our current political system and only tweak it to ensure most optimal return.

It’s not in the presidential form of democracy but in enabling a better human material within the existing system that Pakistan may be able to make the correction in its political functioning and governance model to deliver to the people the type of leadership which can help break a debilitating logjam in political evolution. While there isn’t a threat of an immediate imposition of another political model – constitutional restraints are so binding – it shouldn't stop us a nation to seek corrections to the model we prefer. Nothing must stop from thinking anew.

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