NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 28

Challenges in Pakistan’s federal structure

Pakistan, according to its Constitution, is a federation, but there are significant loopholes in the country’s federal structure. Moreover, the federal structure outlined in the Constitution has often been violated by those in power, particularly in terms of the powers and resources of the federating units. This issue is critical, as it directly affects the development of the state and the political and social stability of society.

When analyzing the federation of Pakistan and its viability, the foremost factor to consider is whether the state structure has strengthened or weakened the country. It is crucial to examine not just the federal structure as it is written in the Constitution but also its implementation in reality to understand its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the provisions of the federation have never been implemented in their true spirit.

For instance, the Pakistani Constitution originally aimed to strengthen the federating units or provinces by granting them extensive administrative and financial powers. The rationale behind this was that strong provinces would result in a strong federal government and a strong state. The original 1973 Constitution provided that most state departments, excluding foreign affairs, currency, and inter-provincial communication, would be placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the provinces after ten years, by 1983. However, the imposition of martial law by General Zia-ul-Haq following the rigged elections of 1977 under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delayed this process. Zia’s regime continued for 11 years, preventing the abolition of the concurrent legislative list by 1983 and the devolution of these departments to the provinces. It took an additional 23 years to abolish the concurrent list through the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010. Consequently, the intended federal structure could not be implemented for a prolonged period.

The purpose of the federation, as mentioned above, aimed at strengthening provinces and, through them, the state. However, this objective has not been achieved. This is evident from the large-scale political instability and economic crisis in contemporary Pakistan. Although the 18th Amendment has granted significant legislative, administrative, and financial powers to the federating units, the federation remains quite weak today. There are several important reasons for this.

Firstly, the provinces have not been provided with the promised finances. Most of the state’s revenue collection has been centralized, with the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) amassing most of the taxes. These funds are then transferred to the provinces according to the Federal Divisible Pool (FDP) formula, where population is the primary criterion for resource distribution. As a result, Punjab, the most populous province, receives the largest share of resources. This is despite the fact that Sindh, the second-largest province, significantly contributes to federal government revenues. Meanwhile, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, rich in mineral, oil, and gas resources, do not receive their due share because of their relatively smaller populations compared to Punjab.

In short, despite gaining strong legislative, administrative, and financial powers through the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the provinces have not achieved financial stability due to the federal government’s reluctance or refusal to provide the promised funds. Furthermore, the provinces’ administrative, legislative, and financial powers have been rendered ineffective because they have not been allowed to fully exercise these powers.

A deeper look at the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency since 2007 reveals that the group gained strength from the extremely underdeveloped and remote Pashtun tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These districts, now merged into KP province and formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), were never truly integrated into the federation. Consequently, they remained excluded from federal financial allocations, leading to extensive underdevelopment. This underdevelopment has been a source of conflict and crisis not only in the region but also for the adjoining KP province and the country in general.

The over-centralization in Pakistan’s federation is evident from the fact that two provinces, KP and Punjab, could not hold their provincial assembly elections within the constitutionally mandated 90 days after the dissolution of their assemblies by their respective chief ministers in 2023. The chief ministers, belonging to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), sought a fresh mandate when the party was highly popular. However, the powers-that-be did not allow this constitutional provision to be implemented, citing the weak justification that elections should be held simultaneously across the entire country. Furthermore, they argued that holding elections in just two provinces out of four, plus the center, would weaken the federation. Ironically, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP), the guardian of the Constitution, violated the Constitution by not enforcing this provision.

Following the national elections on February 8, Pakistan’s federation has weakened due to grossly rigged national elections or, more accurately, the manipulation of electoral results. This has brought to power individuals who were not genuinely elected by the people of Pakistan. This situation has seriously weakened the federation and will continue to have extensive negative consequences for the country.

Today, KP province, the only province ruled by PTI, which won a majority of National Assembly seats in the February 8 elections but was denied political power at the center, is struggling to obtain the financial funds owed by the federal government. For instance, when FATA was merged with KP through the 25th Constitutional Amendment of 2018, all the provinces promised to give a three percent share of their National Finance Commission allocations to the KP government to manage the merged tribal districts. However, to date, none of the provinces has fulfilled this promise, and the federal government has not been able to enforce this commitment.

Considering these facts, it is clear that today the Pakistani federation is in tatters.