It is that time of the year again when we second-guess 70 years of collective wisdom and start debating a presidential system. It is touted as the panacea of all ills plaguing Pakistan. It seems that those who favour this idea seem to think that a presidential system automatically means no legislature and no federalism. A suitable “diary” is discovered from the Jinnah archives (not really!) to back this extraordinary claim. A page of the supposed diary is put into circulation. The said page says: “Parliamentary democracy has worked in England but not satisfactorily elsewhere.” It is not a diary but a page of notes taken at a meeting. It certainly does not speak of a presidential system. The easiest thing to do is to go to National Archives and find the Constitution that Jinnah was drafting in his last days. That would settle the debate to the extent of what Jinnah wanted. But it must be stated that Jinnah did not want to impose his will on the people. In any event we know where Fatima Jinnah, Jinnah’s closest confidante, stood on the matter. Her entire platform was based on restoration of parliamentary system and adult franchise. Jinnah’s own main concern was to ensure that the future constitution of Pakistan should not be theocratic, but beyond that he said or did very little about a form of government, nor did he state at any point that Pakistan should have a presidential system. Indeed, he seemed happy to have the Government of India Act 1935 as the interim constitution of Pakistan, which made the Prime Minister the executive. The powers that Jinnah himself enjoyed were not derived as much from the GOIA 1935 as much as his moral authority from his status as the Quaid-e-Azam. This was not without precedent. In Turkey Kemal Ataturk had become the first President of Turkey and Ismet Inonu was the first Prime Minister. The Turkish model therefore was a hybrid Presidential and Parliamentary system, with Ataturk exercising his moral authority as the founding father to dictate his will to the deputies in the Grand National Assembly. The Republic of France is yet another example which may be described as a hybrid or semi-presidential and parliamentary system.
The whole debate of presidential versus parliamentary system amounts simply to whether the Executive, i.e. Head of Government and the Head of State, ought to be the same person or two different persons i.e. Prime Minister and President. It is also about whether the executive would be part of the legislature or not. The very idea of a presidential system comes from the US Constitution as it was framed in 1789. The fact that the 13 American colonies had thrown off the yoke of British rule, the subsequent United States of America did not have a monarch and therefore had no need of a Prime Minister. The founding fathers there decided that US would have a President instead of a Monarch and because the President would be directly elected (subject to the franchise of the time), there would be no need for the executive to sit in the legislature.
Then comes the argument that in a presidential system, the executive will be elected directly of the people. What good would that do? As pointed out above, a presidential system is not without an elected legislature and the legislature will always have a leader of the house
Our champions of the presidential system seem to forget that a Presidential system doesn’t mean that it would be a state sans legislature. In the US, the President nominates the Cabinet, but it is Senate that confirms them. Thus the US Cabinet, for all practical purposes, is elected by the legislature. The only difference then is that the executive chooses his cabinet members from a larger talent pool than say what the British Prime Minister has at his or her disposal.
Let us consider our case. Imran Khan has been ruling through Special Aides and Assistants. These are all unelected members of the government. How, then, is the present dispensation different from a presidential system? It really is a question of calling the executive Prime Minister or President. The other difference is that the Prime Minister sits in the parliament. He may appoint his ministers from within the elected members of the parliament or keep the portfolios of various ministries himself or herself and then appoint aides and special assistants as heads of those ministries. Under the previous PML-N government, the country for the longest time did not have a foreign minister. The portfolio was retained by the Prime Minister i.e. Nawaz Sharif, who then delegated it to Tariq Fatemi and others. None of them were elected members of the parliament. So, for all intents and purposes, Pakistan is what might well be described as a semi-presidential system all but in name.
Then comes the argument that in a presidential system, the executive will be elected directly of the people. What good would that do? As pointed out above, a presidential system is not without an elected legislature and the legislature will always have a leader of the house. In the US, these two positions are called House Majority Leader and Senate Majority Leader. Congressional powers are exercised with their fiat. The President of the US cannot get his or her bills passed without the approval of these majority leaders. Therefore for all practical purposes there is no substantive difference between the Presidential system and the Parliamentary system. There is a procedural electoral difference and a difference of nomenclature.
The 1962 Constitution envisaged a presidential system suited to the “genius of the people.” It ultimately was rejected by the people of Pakistan. Nevertheless, it is the right of any section of Pakistani citizenry to try and bring about a change in the form of government. What must be remembered is that the form of government means nothing if there is no substance behind it. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is not the form of government but a government that governs best. A system is not inherently broken but it is broken because the people don’t make an effort to make it work.
For all its flaws (mainly being that it is a theocratic constitution), the 1973 framework proposes a form of government that can work satisfactorily if given a chance. No system of government will work if those called upon to follow it are willing party to its overthrow.
So, by all means, bring forth a presidential system but know that it won’t work any better than the present system, because we have not allowed any system to work in this country long enough for democracy to take root. Having a presidential system doesn’t mean that there would be no checks and balances on the executive and that there would be no legislature. This makes the whole debate worse than useless.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a barrister and the author of the books Jinnah: Myth and Reality (Vanguard) and Jinnah: A Life (Pan Macmillan)