Pakistani airwaves are ripe with discussions about possibly changing the nature of governance structure to a presidential system in place of the current parliamentary form of democracy. The discussion started as a consequence of an article written by Lt. Gen (R) Tariq Khan, a decorated senior officer of the Pakistan Army, in which the general advocated the National Security Committee (NSC) take over an interim government of technocrats to stabilise various issues faced by the country and to put in place a presidential form of government. These discussions have now turned into a controversy. In a rejoinder last week, the general clarified that his suggestions were to initiate discussion and that his intent was that all changes should come through the parliament in a democratic manner (assuming that the parliament will realise the gravity of the problems being faced by the country and will initiate actions to dissolve itself and the system under which it exists, and hand over power to the NSC).
Without going into the logic of the parliament delegating power and governance of the country to the NSC, let’s bring to light some relevant facts that the general (and those who support the general’s views) need to ponder over before garnering support for the presidential form of government. Before doing so, however, it must be acknowledged that Lt. General (R) Tariq Khan is one of the most brilliant generals that Pakistan Army has produced. His achievements in South Waziristan against terrorist forces, and as an Inspector General who changed the nature of the Frontier Constabulary to eliminate the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from Bajaur, will be remembered by the nation for times to come.
Pakistan is a complicated country comprising a host of centuries-old ethnicities, often further divided into tribes, speaking almost 80 languages. At 75, Pakistan is still young and trying to come to terms with its identity and formula of coexistence. Punjabis are by far in majority (53%), followed by Pashtuns at a distant second (15%), Sindhis (14%), Mohajirs (8%), Baloch (4%) and others (6%). The biggest issue with a presidential form of government is that with Punjabis comfortably outnumbering all others, the chances of a president from other ethnicities becomes extremely remote. As a result, under a presidential system, it will likely always be a Punjabi who would end up being democratically elected president (due to sheer majority of the Punjabis). This, in no way, will be acceptable to other ethnicities and, as a consequence, this issue has never found support in any other province except Punjab. This also is the very reason that the founders of the 1973 constitution opted for a parliamentary form of government, that gives equitable representation to different ethnicities and is then balanced by equal representation in the Senate (i.e. 25 members from each province).
Let us not, then, talk of repeating the idea where, under the current demographic of 53% Punjabis, a democratic process will always likely elect a Punjabi president – thereby creating a severe sense of disenfranchisement of the other ethnicities
That said, there is strong interest in the presidential form of government in Pakistan, originating primarily due to the complete failure of the current parliamentary form of governance to deliver. If that is to be the goal, then it must come through a process rather than an experiment. Here are some suggestions to be considered and debated:
As a first step, the provincial weights need to be balanced. There will be strong opposition if more provinces were to be created in Punjab, while not in other provinces. Hence, the process of creating more provinces also needs to be spread equitably such that it is acceptable to all provinces. For this, the most suited idea would be to convert all existing districts into provinces (thereby creating 123 provinces in Pakistan).
Firstly, this process would aim for the following administrative outcomes:
(1) It will create the much-needed smaller provinces for administrative purposes
(2) Since the districts already have district headquarters and governance infrastructure, no (or very few) new buildings/infrastructure will need to be created
(3) Due to the growth in population, the government and decision-making will be shifted closer to the citizens, thereby improving essential services
(4) A meaningful civil service reform must be implemented through which police and finance should be devolved to the districts (i.e. the new provinces)
(5) The national finance commission can easily be reallocated, using the existing formula to distribute resources to the districts.
Secondly, the existing provinces can become “Economic Zones” on the lines of Economic Regions in the USA. The existing four provinces can become Regional Economic Zones, further divided into sub-economic zones defined by the “divisions”. Borrowing from the US Economic Regions, the goal of these four economic zones can be “The just, fair, transparent, accessible and moderate economic system and range of economic activity in a regional area of a country.”
Thirdly, a strong local government system needs to be established, taking the basic day-to-day needs of the citizens to their doorstep.
Fourthly, in order to overcome the issue of money and power creeping into our politics, the system of proportional representation should be adopted in general elections, whereby the number of seats a party gets in the parliament should correspond with the percentage of votes the party gets in a general election (eligibility based on receiving a minimum number of votes e.g. 5%). This will eliminate disillusionment of those voters whose candidates are not elected in the current “first past the post” system (e.g. 51% wins, while 49% loses). This will also give the party leader the flexibility of bringing honourable and educated candidates on their predetermined prioritised lists submitted to the election commission (rather than be constrained or blackmailed to choose candidates from strong families who continue to switch sides to be in every government, irrespective of the outcome). Other practical changes in the electoral process can be made with no or minor legislation, to bring about a sea change in the positive outcome of elections, but that is a debate for a different piece of writing.
With the above changes, the outcome in the governance of Pakistan is likely to completely transform and, hopefully, the voices for change towards a presidential form of system would be pacified. However, if the framework described above would not be satisfactory, it will at least create a more suitable basis to ask for a presidential form (i.e. with 123 provinces, none of the provinces will be in a super majority). Note also that with creation of 123 provinces, the demands for creation of more provinces will also come to a close. It will also likely put an end to demands of independence from deranged insurgents.
There is much to be said about the general’s views about the positive economic growth during the three periods of martial law. But we would leave that for another time, so we can focus on addressing the idea of a presidential form of government for now.
Finally, we must not forget the reasons for the division of East and West Pakistan in 1971. The Bengalis (who were in majority) were denied their legitimate right to form a government, which resulted in the formation of Bangladesh. Let us not, then, talk of repeating the idea where, under the current demographic of 53% Punjabis, a democratic process will always likely elect a Punjabi president – thereby creating a severe sense of disenfranchisement of the other ethnicities. It will be creating a massive earthquake in a young and fractured society, which is already struggling to learn how to coexist.