Shahid Javed Burki, in his book Pakistan Under Bhutto argued that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto desired a presidential form of democracy. Similar thoughts were echoed in Dr Mubahsir Hassan’s The Mirage of Power, which stated that Bhutto aimed to use PPP’s majority in assemblies, post 1977, to constitutionally transform Pakistan into a presidential system. Bhutto’s penchant for presidential form of governance was rooted in the advantages it secures for the person on top.
The system ensures executive authority rests with the president, directly elected by the electorate. Consequently, the executive is independent of the legislature which means the president can enroll numerous non-elected personnel as part of his cabinet. This is why presidential picks are grilled and vetted by US Congress. Furthermore, the president cannot be removed via vote of no confidence in the legislature.
For establishment-backed PTI, the ideal scenario would be to wield power without the parliamentary checks and balances. Lack of a parliamentary majority has made it tricky for the hybrid regime to pass laws, despite efforts to pummel through legislation.
The government has bypassed normal parliamentary practices of enacting laws by issuing multiple presidential ordinances. Take for example, the government’s inability to develop consensus around the appointment of chairman NAB.
The prime minister now intends to extend the current chairman’s tenure by introducing a presidential ordinance, which can be struck down in court. The comparative would be a directly elected president who could appoint whoever they wish.
At the same time, the prime minister remains hostage to many MNAs who have demanded development funds for their constituencies, whereas the presidential system makes reform agendas conveniently implementable via executive orders.
There remains a recurring possibility of a vote of no confidence if the opposition accrues adequate political capital. Simply put, the president is not accountable to the legislature in the same way a prime minister is to the parliament.
It is also crucial to speak of the uncomfortable truths plaguing our political life. The miltablishment continues to undermine our democracy. Their penchant for control has translated into a largely subservient political class. Apart from direct rule, the overlords have always managed to consolidate their power, one way or the other. In the 1990s, even in the parliamentary system, the Articles 58-2B was consistently used by the establishment’s president to disband elected parliaments twice.
The miltablishment continues to undermine our democracy. Their penchant for control has translated into a largely subservient political class
In the current hybrid setup, political class dissenters and a moderately vibrant opposition have managed to push back against establishment’s accountability onslaught and grand legislative plans. The system allowed opposition to utilize their parliamentary strength by negotiating space within the system for example, by agreeing to vote on the chief of army staff’s extension.
A presidential form of governance would essentially wipe out whatever influence elected individuals hold in the current system. Not only will they directly weigh down upon the president, but the cabinet would no longer be accountable to the legislature like it is now.
The presidential model implies that the establishment needs no longer expend resources to ensure parliamentary majority for their favored party via rigging. It won’t need to threat or sanction numerous elected parliaments to pummel through legislation. The presidential system would afford the miltablishment a hassle-free control scheme. Help elect a president and control them as per their whims and wishes.
The dictators who ruled Pakistan also preferred presidential system. They had a proclivity to exercise above-mentioned powers with impunity. Dictators like Yahya Khan, Zia, Musharraf ruled with impunity, without an elected legislature for months at end and relied on a tightly knit cohort of unelected advisors. Some of the results from those eras still haunt us, courtesy Musharraf and Zia’s wars and Yahya’s disturbing role in East Pakistan debacle.
The scepticism in Pakistan around the presidential system is justified. Demerits aside, we need to test a parliamentary system of democracy which is not controlled or interfered by either judicial overreach or dark schemes from behind the scenes.