Since the beginning of human societies, there has been a continual debate as to which form of government is better for the welfare of the state and prosperity of its citizens. And after centuries of evolution, it is now believed that only that state can prosper and develop where democracy reigns supreme. Over the centuries, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies have faded away only to be replaced by representative forms of government.
At present, there is hardly any country in the world where a king or queen is at the helm of state affairs as an omnipotent ruler and where public will is not adhered to. In spite of a universal consensus on democracy as a form of government, there has been a continual debate on its form. Apart from some constitutional monarchies like Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Japan and United Kingdom, most countries e.g., Bangladesh, India, Italy, and Pakistan, are republics having the parliamentary form of government while many have installed the presidential form of government e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, United States, and more recently Turkey.
In Pakistan, the debate on the question that whether we should adopt a presidential form of government or continue with the parliamentary system has gained momentum and renowned analysts and scholars like Shamshad Ahmad, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman and Mueen Afzal are increasingly favouring the presidential form of government. For instance, former federal minister Dr Atta recommends basic changes in the system of democracy and says that “the presidential system of democracy should be introduced”. And, former foreign secretary Mr Shamshad Ahmad opines, “Temperamentally, we are a ‘presidential’ nation. It is time we abandoned the system that we have never been able to practice, and explored an adult franchise-based ‘presidential system’ suitably designed for and tailored to Pakistan’s needs.”
On the other hand, barring PTI chief Imran Khan, none of the political leaders of the country holds a positive view on introducing presidential form of government. So, here it is pertinent that we first do a brief comparative analysis of these both forms of government.
Presidential or Parliamentary: A Comparison
First of all, it is important to remember that parliamentary and presidential systems are two entirely different concepts. But when it comes to presidential form of government we find that in the modern world, the United States is the only country that has a ‘qualified’ presidential system in the world.
1. Nature of Government
In presidential form, there is no concept of ‘government’ rather it is an ‘administration’ and under the influence of ‘Separation of Powers’ theory, the judiciary and the legislature are separate institutions.
In a parliamentary system, there is a government that consists of three institutions — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. There is a ‘fusion’ of power in this form, rather than the separation of powers.
2. Political Parties
The notions of ‘ruling party’ or ‘opposition’ solely lack in the presidential system; instead it has a ‘majority party’ and a ‘minority party’. Moreover, in this form, there are only two major political parties. So, the president is free from party influence in his daily administration.
On the contrary, there is a multi-party system in the parliamentary form and the executive cannot be completely free of party affiliation.
3. Heads of the state and government
In the presidential system, the president is both the head of state and the head of the executive branch.
In the parliamentary system, generally, two people hold these two offices.
In presidential form of government, the president is directly elected by the people and he then selects his own team of federal ministers from the most competent persons in their respective fields. He is answerable to the voters rather than the legislature.
In a parliamentary system, people elect only their representatives to the national parliament. These parliamentarians then elect their leader of the house who then forms the government. It is another striking feature of the parliamentary form that the cabinet colleagues of the prime minister must be members of that parliament.
5. Term of Office
In a presidential form of government, the president has a fixed tenure and elections cannot be called unless extraordinary circumstances arise. For instance, the presidential office becomes vacant after president’s impeachment or when he is declared unfit to perform his duties.
In parliamentary form, if the prime minister loses the support of majority in the legislature, he is forced to resign through a no-confidence motion and new prime minister is elected.
6. Source of Powers
Constitution is considered ‘supreme’ in a presidential system and all institutions draw their powers form it.
The parliamentary system is based on ‘parliamentary supremacy’ and no court in the country can challenge its authority. Parliament is the source of all powers in the community and the regions/provinces have no reserved powers.
The whole decision-making process in the presidential system is based on consent and compromise. No law can be passed against the will of the president unless some members ‘defect’ or change their loyalties. The party system is also weak and disorganised, and party leaders are merely titular or decorative.
In parliamentary form, parties and their leaders are very powerful. And, in case of Pakistan, they wield so much power that if an MP does not toe the party line, he faces the threat of being de-seated.
Why Pakistan needs Presidential System?
Now that we have understood the basic contours of presidential as well as parliamentary form of government, let’s analyse the question: “Why Pakistan needs presidential form of government?”
In parliamentary system of democracy, as in Pakistan, the prime minister is the head of the government. The ministers are appointed only from parliament, and if there is a weak opposition, there are few checks and balances against corruption. The heads of organisations such as ECP, NAB, FIA, FBR, SBP, etc., are usually cronies appointed by the government in power so that they can turn a blind eye to the massive corruption that goes on under their noses. Even the FIA has been made helpless to catch senior government officials for cooperation.
This form of government in Pakistan has benefited only a few individuals as the parties have become mere dynasties where none is allowed to challenge party head’s supremacy or aspire to become party supremo himself. In fact, we have a political monarchy in the name of democracy. There are many other issues in parliamentary form in the context of Pakistan. They include, but are not limited to, the caste system, feudalism, dynastic politics, threat of no-confidence against the prime minister, horse trading and lesser accountability.
Moreover, successive governments have been involved in conciliatory politics only because they could not gain absolute majority in the parliament and have to form coalition governments. So, the prime minister has to please his allies in the government to keep his rule intact. This all has been to the detriment of the people of Pakistan who are ultimate losers in this game of politics. All indices on human development put Pakistan at the lowest positions, poverty is — as always — on the rise, unemployment is soaring, inflation is uncontrollable, middle class which acts as a buffer zone between the rich and the poor classes has vanished, institutional are on the verge of collapse, and people are reeling under the claws of injustice. Amidst all this, political leaders have resorted only to making tall claims but when it comes to fulfilling the promises, mum’s the word.
This state of affairs requires a holistic systemic change in our governance system. It is especially needed to get rid of the same old usurpers of the country’s politics, outmoded social and political structures and elitist-led status quo in our country.
Contours of the Proposed System
“Presidential system has an elected parliament, the premier is the chief operating officer and the president is the chief executive officer and it is to the chief executive that every institution reports. There are ministries and committees and the system that guards this system is strong and stable. The system works well.”
— Shaukat Aziz (Former Primer Minister of Pakistan)
If we aspire to have prudently-formulated stronger and better policies on various aspects of our national life, like economy, defence, social sector or foreign affairs, we need to have stronger governments that are better equipped to deliver on the promise of good governance. We need to introduce an adult-franchise-based ‘presidential system’ suitably designed for and tailored to Pakistan’s needs.
A system of presidential government in Pakistan may have the following features:
A presidential election on the basis of ‘one-man, one-vote’ should be conducted in the country with a fixed term. Dr Atta-ur-Rehman goes a step further and suggests that the credentials of presidential candidates and, for that purpose, of ministers, governors and other important government officials must be first approved for suitability by a ‘Committee of Elders’ who should all be non-political and highly respected persons to ensure integrity and competence.
2. Composition of Parliament
There should be two chambers, as we have now. We must adopt the system of ‘proportional representation’ because it will ensure representation of political parties in national legislature proportionate to the percentage of popular vote they receive. It will provide greater access to non-feudal, non-elitist educated middle class people in elected assemblies.
Senators in the upper house would be directly elected rather than selected by the lower house. The direct election of senators will mean that the unsavoury horse trading that takes place for lower house votes will end.
3. Formation of Cabinet
The president would be entitled to have a cabinet of experts or technocrats, some of whom would need the approval of designated, parliamentary committees to enter the cabinet. Ministers would be selected from university professors, corporate managers, lawyers or other professionals. The president would not be able to appoint ministers from either of the two houses.
4. Role of Legislature
The role of parliamentarians should be confined to law-making and oversight of national affairs, and parliamentarians should not be eligible to be appointed as ministers. This will eliminate corrupt persons who enter politics to steal public money.
5. Devolution of Power
Power should be devolved and should lie with people’s representatives at grassroots level. Elected representatives would not be given any development funds. These funds will be channelled through local bodies or concerned provincial or federal departments.
At first sight, these proposed changes may seem innocuous but taken together they will bring a fundamental change to Pakistan’s politics. The direct election of the president will mean that in the future we will have a president who is among the best of the country and who will lead the country toward progress and development. The people will elect whomever they deem worthy of the position. And the collective wisdom of the people will never settle for an unworthy, corrupt or incompetent candidate.
How to Achieve the Goal?
However, achieving this goal will never be that easy. The collusion of feudal lords, businessmen and the aristocrats will never allow this to happen. The stranglehold of a corrupt feudal system, massive illiteracy due to this feudal stranglehold and the absence of an effective judicial system are the basic impediments which need to be dealt with first. Here the role of the Supreme Court of Pakistan as the guardian of the constitution assumes further importance. The SC should come forward and take up the job of appointing the members of the Election Commission. The ECP chairman and its members are presently appointed by those people who contest elections. So there is all likelihood that they will appoint only the loyal persons. This has happened earlier but we cannot afford it anymore. The SC should appoint only the persons who have unquestionable integrity and do not have any political affiliations.
The whole discussion can be summed up in a quote of former US President John F. Kennedy. He said:
“We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
The time to bring the change is now!