“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
These words are attributed to the great thinker, revolutionary leader and statesman Thomas Jefferson and begin the 1776 US Declaration of Independence. That Declaration and the principles proclaimed by Jefferson became foundations for the American Constitution, the world’s first formal, democratic Constitution, which was drafted by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and 51 other Delegates in 1787.
The members of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia devised a pioneering document, and one that has survived in its essential form, with only 27 Amendments, for over 230 years. Their thinking was dominated by opposition to the autochratic monarchy, which they had successfully risen against. So, they created the office of President. This was an office that was similar to that of a monarch, but a popularly elected monarch…and one ruling only for a fixed term.
The authors of this first and most durable of the world’s Constitutions went further and put rigid vertical limits on the powers of the President through the doctrine of Separation of Powers. The roles of an autonomous Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary were rigidly segregated into separate compartments. Further, the Legislature was given control of Finance and of Warfare. Also – and this is a key point – no President could make a Cabinet or other appointment without approval by the Legislature.
Horizontally, also, powers were separated, between the Federation and the constituent States, and thereby limited. To cap it all, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, passed immediately after the Constitution itself, comprised a Bill of Rights that ensured the fundamental rights of all citizens.
To those who know anything at all about political science or history, the term ‘Presidential system’ means this kind of elected, horizontally and vertically restricted Executive, bound by the rights of the provinces and the citizens and the various conventions that have evolved over more than two centuries
Thus was the Presidential system born. And this is the first point I wish to make in today’s piece. To those who know anything at all about political science or history, the term ‘Presidential system’ means this kind of elected, horizontally and vertically restricted Executive, bound by the rights of the provinces and the citizens and the various conventions that have evolved over more than two centuries. But that is not the kind of ‘President’ that is too often found in politically backward countries. Nor, I am afraid, is it the kind of ‘presidential system’ that is in the minds of our drawing room chatterers, media natterers, and social media ranters, and which our Establishmentarian elite periodically hankers after. The talk that is going around merely suggests a fervent desire for undemocratic, unconstitutional one-man rule, a system without checks and balances. That is my second point today. This kind of system is merely an un-parliamentary system, a personalised despotism.
Of course, this kind of irresponsible, unaccountable executive is nothing new to the world. Or to Pakistan. We have experienced it here four times. The first, and arguably the ‘inspiration’ for the others, was that which was installed by President Ayub Khan, which was claimed to have given the country significant economic growth. But this was growth without restraints, with no social safety nets and no attempt to ensure better distribution, either regionally or between classes. With large portions of the population and whole regions excluded from economic reward, without even a sense of democratic participation or representation, fragmentation of society and political instability were inevitable consequences. The results were so devastating that even the architect of Ayub’s policies, Dr. Mahboobul Haq, baulked at them and became one of his biggest critics. The Field Marshal’s achievements (like those of other personalised rulers in history) did not extend beyond his personal reach. The edifices he built around himself crumbled.
There came the inevitable reaction. The social and regional tensions exploded into massive social upheavals. The near-revolutionary series of protests and uprisings brought about the collapse of Ayub’s regime and forced him to resign. Worse, the processes that ended in the disintegration of Pakistan had already been set in motion by Ayub’s despotism and were well under way.
The second bout of un-parliamentary government now ensued, under the command of General Yahya Khan. For the catastrophe of 1971, fingers of blame have been pointed in many directions – at Bhutto, Mujib, Indira Gandhi, the USA, the USSR. The point is that the man in charge was General Yahya. It was he who gave the orders, while the others each pursued what they perceived as their own interests. It was Yahya who took the decisions and the actions. The result was bloodshed, calamity, dismemberment, and humiliation
Enough of a disaster? There was more to come. In 1977, tearing up the Constitution, the General who called himself “a simple soldier of Islam” ended the flawed Bhutto interregnum. The eleven-year-long darkness of Zia’s rule now descended upon us. It was the script of a horror story: brutality, public floggings, so many executions , people strung up and hanged on public television, kidnappings, blood, murders, drug trafficking, and the weaponisation of society. Intolerance and sectarianism were nurtured and brought to dreadful bloom. Bigotry and violence became national characteristics. Terrorism was given a huge initiation.
We are still living with the consequences of the uncontrolled evil of the Zia years.
Fast forward to 1999, and we come to the most recent of our presidential-system-touting destroyers of institutions. During Musharraf’s ‘reign of error’, the country’s very sovereignty was bartered away to terrorists and insurgents, with rebel clerics defying the law, Islamist terrorists and American spies separately running rampant, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban operating proto-governments in Orakzai, Bajaur, Khyber, both Waziristans, Malakand, and even Swat. The terrorist attacks all over the country targeted the pseudo-President himself. They attacked the country’s principal political personality twice, killing her the second time.
And, of course, yet again, come 2007, Musharraf’s system also collapsed in great waves of civic disorder.
The purpose of this quick historical survey was to remind us that, however corrupt, pathetic, or just plain inept the performances of our parliaments and parliamentarians may sometimes have been, the periods of so-called ‘presidential government’, when the executive of the day has held unquestioned, unrestricted power, have not only been bad; they have been disastrous.
And this is my third and principal point. Irresponsible concentration of power in unrepresentative hands does not lead to good governance and economic prosperity. It leads, inevitably and predictably, to instability, disorder, and collapse.
Of course, it has been argued each time that an unparliamentary intervention was forced on its perpetrator by one or another ‘necessity’. We even invented a judicial Doctrine of Necessity as justification. In response, let me simply quote the 18th-century British statesman, William Pitt the Younger:
“Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It was the argument of tyrants; it was the creed of slaves.”