He tweeted Pakistan needs a presidential system
I am beginning to feel that it has been far too long that we have let this sham of a democracy go on.
The nation is tired of walking to the polling stations so often—thrice already in the last 11 years—and it has been too long since we saw the uniforms on Constitutional Avenue. It is time we wrap up this charade and let the real political experts, such as Hamza Ali Abbasi, tell us what this country needs.
Abbasi tweeted a day earlier that Pakistan would be better off with a presidential system because those who the People elected into office to represent them, the MNAs and MPAs, have too much influence. He suggests abolishing large provinces and breaking down administrative divisions into smaller provinces. He wants a powerful local bodies government. But before we applaud Abbasi for his insightful and terribly clever prescription, please bear in mind that many people before him have felt equally intelligent. It is no mere coincidence perhaps that all these people wore uniforms but we all know that Abbasi also feels quite comfortable wearing uniforms during his day job.
I am beginning to feel tht PAKISTAN needs Presidential system to get rid of the powerful MNA/MPA influence, abolition of large Provinces & Administrative Divisions made into smaller Provinces with powerful/empowered directly elected local body Governments.
— Hamza Ali Abbasi (@iamhamzaabbasi) April 2, 2019
I am also beginning to feel that Abbasi missed a few history classes in college so let’s break down his expert advice and see how those who made similar suggestions in the past have fared.
Pakistan has had direct military rule for most of its history since 1947. Whenever the military overthrew the civilian government, it imposed martial law and set the Constitution aside. The coup was always condemned by the international community—though not always immediately as military dictators had always been strategic assets in geopolitics. The military ruler would eventually decide to legitimize his rule by bringing it in line with the Constitution, or by bringing the Constitution in line with his rule. The solution was almost always a presidential system. And the reason is simple: you can self-appoint a president but not a prime minister.
The presidential system calls for a weakened parliament which cannot pass any laws without the president’s permission. The president handpicks his cabinet and governors, who are his representatives in the provinces, and he takes unilateral decisions based on the advice given by them. The elected representatives who sit in parliament play a walk-on subsidiary role in this theatre. So, in effect, the influence of the MNAs and MPAs is replaced by that of the governors and cabinet members. Incidentally, these cabinet members enjoy the additional perk of not having to suffer through a direct election and, hence, they are not answerable to the people of Pakistan.
To abolish large provinces in favour of creating smaller administrative divisions is also a tried-and-tested formula that has benefited no one except those at the Centre, who faced little to no resistance to their exercise of power. It is naïve to think that our provinces represent nothing more than an administrative division. There is shared language, culture and economic interests that define our provinces and any attempt to overlook this diversity in the interest of diluting their influence will be resisted and will dismantle the Centre, much as it did in Ayub Khan’s time.
And lastly, there is Abbasi’s case for an empowered local government. It is good in theory but, when practiced in Pakistan under self-appointed presidents, it has always been a means to dilute the power of provincial governments. Let us not forget that the justification behind Ayub Khan’s presidential system was that the nation is too illiterate and immature to make informed decisions about elected representatives. Foolish people will elect foolish representatives and, therefore, they cannot be trusted to vote for those with significant decision-making powers. Hence, the country is run by bureaucrats selected by the president, while the role of an elected parliament is merely do push along legislation under the influence of the president.
Whenever we face a crisis, economic or political, it is always tempting to yearn for a system overhaul. Instead of improving our democratic institutions and using them to weed out incompetent democratic players, we are tempted to bring in autocratic systems that bring an illusion of cohesion yet set our political growth back by decades. It is crucial to remember what has happened in the past before you begin to have feelings about the future.
The writer is a former city editor at The Express Tribune and former program manager at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA. She has an MA in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada