Los presidentes

Published in Dawn – photo courtesy Adnan Aurangzeb collection

We’ll call it the law of fresh starts: each government has a life-cycle. In Pakistan, that life-cycle is haunted by the same ghosts: cries of a national government, a London plan, a Bangladesh model.  

What any of these mean, no one really knows; it’s what happens when a country has drawing rooms instead of policy institutes. So it is that the same uncles proclaim that the system is broken, and that it’s time to start afresh.

But though everyone likes the beginnings of things, it takes pain and courage and hard work to see them through to the end. It’s why, since 1947, Pakistan has been treated to these fresh starts a dozen times, each one staler than the last.

Yet whatever our history tells us, the same slogans persist – the latest idea, warmed over for the umpteenth time, is the need for a presidential system. Reasons have been recycled too: to free ourselves from the current political class and parliament; to bring in a white knight that moves fast and breaks things; to rule instead of reign.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is – an imperial presidency is the nudge-wink version of the generalissimo on TV; of the ageless theory that Pakistanis need a strongman cracking the whip. Ayub famously said our blood ran too hot to ‘run an orderly parliamentary democracy’; he later added that the country was ‘behaving like a wild horse that had been captured but not yet tamed.’

But we’ve been here before. Those that say military rule can’t be equated with a presidency have never studied Ayub’s Constitution of 1962, and never heard of his colleague Zulfi Bhutto’s proposals for a ‘unitary form of government where the provinces would act only as agents of the centre’. It’s exactly what a presidential system looks like, and it lasted no more than six years.

One reason it was scrapped is that it had no buy-in from the people; it was a despot’s dream made flesh by the deft legal hand of Manzur Qadir. Compare this to the fact that our current Constitution endures ­– warts and all – because it was the very first that was put together by the people’s directly elected representatives. That those representatives, in their wisdom, thought parliament the right forum, is the other reason: Pakistan is, in its essence, a deeply diverse, multi-million-man federation – to build up the centre is what breaks it apart.

It’s no coincidence that Jinnah’s Pakistan died on 1 March 1971, when Yahya postponed the opening session of parliament, the National Assembly in Dhaka, and loosed secession and mass murder (it’s also no coincidence that it followed Ayub’s imperial presidency, and Bhutto’s refusal to recognize an elected legislature). It is the parliament that best expresses the will of the people. It always has.

Second, the cry of ‘doddering parliamentarians’ has been used to justify strongmen as early as 1958: the critics claimed that Pakistan had as many as seven prime ministers before the first imperial president. This ignores the fact, per Allen McGrath, that there were only two PMs for over half that period – Liaquat and Nazimuddin – and that parliament only became a den of intrigue after Ghulam Muhammad sacked it in 1954 and Justice Munir stripped it of its sovereignty. It was again Zia’s presidential 58-2(b) button that saw four PMs go home.

Third, it is the parliament, and not some shahi farman from above, that has delivered the most vital reforms in recent years: the Eighteenth Amendment devolved powers to the provinces, rewrote the NFC’s social compact for Balochistan, enshrined local governments, and ensured judicial independence. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment undid FATA and the nightmare of FCR. There is now hope for a new deal in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Fourth, there are quibbles that Mr. Jinnah’s diary tut-tutted the parliamentary system in favour of the presidency. Leaving aside the fact that from the days of the Delhi Legislative Assembly, Mr. Jinnah was a parliamentarian par excellence his whole life, a stray sentence from his private wonderings doesn’t rebut actual policy statements. He said on 13 July 1947: ‘(Adaptations to the law) are all subject to the supreme power of the Constituent Assemblies to change anything they like after August 15.’

A month later, he said that the Constituent Assembly’s role is ‘functioning as a full and complete sovereign body as the federal legislature of Pakistan…Remember that you are now a sovereign legislative body, and you have got all the powers. It, therefore, places on you the gravest responsibility.’ Had Mr. Jinnah wanted a presidency, he wouldn’t keep citing the supremacy of its opposite.

Finally, what makes the entire debate pointless is that the Supreme Court has already ruled that parliamentary government is a salient feature of the Constitution, and that no force on our soil can amend it. Those calling for a presidential system may now rest easy: it’s not doable, and for plenty reason.

In that spirit, may Pakistan, and its parliament, progress.

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