Addressing the Locus of Power

Mr. I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat, outlined the central problem with all the hand-wringing over NRO and 17th Amendment. That is, for a nation struggling to protect and build its democratic institutions, these are only symptoms and not the cause of problems.

Writing in Dawn, Mr. Rehman says that, while these are not unimportant issues, Pakistan’s core issue is determination of a legitimate locus of power. Without addressing this basic foundation of democratic institutions, debates about other items miss the point completely and will never be able to bring improvement to the democratic processes and, thusly, the lives of Pakistanis.

JUDGING from the labours of the media’s knights in shining armour the most critical issue in Pakistan is neither Kashmir, nor Talibanisation, nor even the people’s economic plight, it is the urgency of pushing a stubborn person out of the presidency or repeal of the 17th Amendment.

Without denying the merit of this formulation one should like to argue that Pakistan’s core issue is determination of a legitimate locus of power.

The future of Mr Zardari, who seems to have mastered the art of making enemies and losing friends, has become irrelevant and no sane person can defend the 17th Amendment.

However, the campaigns against Mr Zardari and for the repeal of the 17th Amendment both flow from the 50-year-old debate on the president’s powers and a lack of comprehension of the parliamentary form of government that Pakistan is supposed to be irrevocably wedded to.

At the beginning of its constitution-making efforts Pakistan opted for the Westminster type of parliamentary system in which the president was a constitutional head who always acted on the advice of the cabinet (through the prime minister). In theory he had sweeping powers, including the power to remove a prime minister or dissolve parliament, but these powers were not to be used arbitrarily or at his discretion. The president’s powers under the 1956 constitution were more or less the same as allowed to the Indian head of state. The system has worked in India and not in Pakistan because most of the presidents Pakistan has had have refused to be bound by the constitution or democratic convention.

Even before Pakistan’s first post-independence constitution was adopted, Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad had laid down a convention that his word overrode constitutional provisions and even democratic norms. His successor, Gen Iskander Mirza, developed this convention many steps further and arbitrarily abrogated the constitution itself. Gen (later on Field Marshal) Ayub Khan discarded the parliamentary form and invented a custom-built presidential system in which the head of state enjoyed unfettered powers. As a result the entire nation developed strong reservations against all-powerful presidents.

Mr Bhutto tried to meet the situation by promoting the concept of an all-powerful prime minister and alienated democratic circles. Gen Ziaul Haq disarmed his critics by talking of the need for a balance between the powers of the president and the prime minister but in effect made the president more powerful than before. Mr Nawaz Sharif tried to emulate Mr Bhutto and was punished for this by Gen Musharraf who picked up the thread of presidential despotism where Gen Zia had left off. Now Mr Zardari is being censured for trying to retain the powers authoritarian rulers had created for themselves.

Some conclusions from this history deserve to be noted. All those Pakistani heads of state who wielded extraordinary powers, who became absolute rulers, could do so because they enjoyed the backing of the armed forces. A president who is not backed by the defence forces, be he a Leghari or a Zardari, cannot assume to be a powerful head of state. Those gunning for Mr Zardari have made it clear that his most unforgivable sin is that he does not enjoy the trust of the permanent establishment. The latter’s autonomy cannot be trifled with.

The same principle applies to politicians who dream of being effective heads of government. All prime ministers who tried to enjoy their constitutional powers –— Mr Bhutto, Mr Junejo, Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif (should one include Mr Jamali?)—– had to pay for their audacity in exercising the powers the constitution allowed them.

In simpler words, for over five decades the locus of power in Pakistan has been in the country’s permanent establishment. The problems of governance will not be solved by a change in the presidency or repeal of the 17th Amendment alone; they will begin to be solved only when power is restored to its legitimate keepers —– the elected representatives of the people. The process can begin with amendments to the constitution so as to curtail the president’s powers and revive the tradition of parliament’s supremacy (through the cabinet) but much else will be needed to restore power to the people’s elected representatives.

All elected prime ministers, from Mr Bhutto to Mr Nawaz Sharif, tried with varying degrees of earnestness, to get rid of the halter around their necks and all of them came to grief. Now that it is possible to think of democratic advancement the reasons for their failure must be thoroughly examined and adequately addressed.

First, anti-democratic forces could have the better of democratically elected premiers because of divisions and disunity within the democratic camp. If the present-day political parties are serious about ensuring continuity of constitutional rule they must in a united manner protect the democratic system, however imperfect and inadequate it may be. What Mr Nawaz Sharif says about the preservation of the system deserves to be accepted by all parties as their creed.

Secondly, Mr Bhutto (1977) Ms Benazir Bhutto (1990 and 1996) and Mr Nawaz Sharif (1993 and 1999) failed to overcome authoritarian elements because they confronted their adversary directly instead of properly planning their manoeuvres and chose to rely on the state’s rickety institutions instead of mobilising the people behind themselves. Indeed their trials came when they were by no means at the peak of their popularity. Only strong and democratically organised political parties can inspire the people to defend democratic rule. The task of raising strong mass parties cannot be delayed.

Thirdly, the main function of democratic institutions is not protection of elected representatives’ privileges and profits; their central purpose is to meet the needs of the people and promote their right to dignity and material advancement. Neither the victory of Zardari-baiters (and not all of them have clean hands) nor a repeal of the 17th Amendment alone will enable the people to reap the benefits of independence and democracy if the style of governance does not change and the entire business of the state does not revolve around the long-suffering poor citizens’’ welfare.

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