NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 08

Our dysfunctional political system

The political situation in the country has gone from bad to worse and this is not just an assessment but the country’s top office-holder has admitted it, casting further doubts on the future of the existing dispensation rather the entire system.

On November 19, President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi, while reacting to a question of a journalist, reportedly said, “The situation nowadays is quite serious, therefore, I would not like to make further comment.” On the other hand, the country is rife with talks and rumours of packing up of the dispensation as it is no longer tenable. It is also important to note that even Prime Minister Imran Khan in an impassioned speech on November 18 appealed to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, to put an end to the impression that there were two sets of justice in the country. All this shows that the political system of the country is faced with serious crisis.

The expression of concern by the head of state, Dr Alvi, over the prevailing conditions in the country should not be taken lightly. Because constitutionally he is the guardian of the system and if he thinks so, then alarm bells must ring. This does not mean that Dr. Alvi has developed differences with PM Khan as has been the case with the past prime ministers but he is realizing the situation as a conscientious and concerned leader of a state. He is a thorough gentleman and is the product of the system and, therefore, he is concerned about its malfunctioning. PM Khan has also expressed his dissatisfaction over the state of affairs in the country on more than one occasions. So if he being chief executive of the country has doubts about the viability of the system, then every sane and concerned person must think over it.

Top analysts have also started questioning the viability of the political system. They have started asking that then the country did not have democracy, as it is being argued that once the country would have democracy all issues of the state and the people would be resolved. However, this is not happening despite the presence of democratic governments. Therefore, analysts have started asking that instead of commenting on the players and their performance in the system, it is important to analyze the system.

Then the same institutional approach could be applied to the present situation in the country. It is important to understand that the success and failure of the political system is gauged by the contribution of the political system to social and economic progress and well-being. Today, if we are arguing that the social and economic situation in the country is not good, as is evident from growing crime rates including white-collar crimes and unbearable rates of inflation, unemployment and poverty, then we blame the government. For that, it is in fact criticism or even rejection of the political system. As the president and prime minister are part of the political system, therefore, despite knowing its problems they are shy from openly criticizing it, as it would be tantamount to self-negation. However, at this point the biggest problem is that whether by not disclosing the issues and problems of the political system, is it possible we rectify it? The answer is an emphatic “no.” Therefore, it again becomes necessary to critically analyze the structure of the political system and problems with it.

Pakistan’s Constitution provides for the parliamentary system of government in the country. The country is once again at the crossroads in its largely chequered history whereas the political system despite its relative continuity has generally been unable to fulfil its basic functions and achieve its fundamental objectives. Therefore, it becomes necessary as responsible citizens we all must think over the causes of the inability of the existing system and the loopholes and shortcomings within it.

Although it is up to the people to agree what kind of political system the country must have, yet the dominant majority of politicians and political parties, who claim to be representative of the people, for decades have considered the parliamentary system the best option for the state and its residents. Consequently, they are against any other political system, specifically the alternative presidential system. The foremost criticism of Pakistani political parties of the presidential system of government has been its “undemocratic” nature. The fact of the matter is that generally the presidential system in vogue in many countries of the world, like the greatest democracy America and extensively democratic Germany, has proved more democratic than the parliamentary system in place in many countries, like the largest democracy India or oldest democracy Great Britain.

There are historical, cultural and personal reasons that our political parties and politicians consider or portray the presidential system as “undemocratic.” Firstly, it was first military ruler General Ayub Khan, who framed the 1962 Constitution which provided for the presidential system of governance. But equating the presidential system with the iron-fisted rule of General Ayub Khan and then believing the system to be “undemocratic” is at best naive. Because it was not that the presidential system conditioned the decisions and behaviour of Ayub Khan, rather it was his conduct and aims which manipulated the system. In simple words, the presidential system did not control General Ayub as is the case in any democracy, rather the general kept hostage the system to be of real value.

Secondly, Pakistani political parties and groups’ antagonism to the presidential system of governments is because the system does not provide stakes to many or most politicians and their parties in the state power structure. It is the directly-elected personalities of the president and governors in provinces and their respective cabinet members, who wield real power within the state while all other politicians and political parties remain on the sidelines. The president and governors’ cabinet members ought not to be members of the parliament or provincial assemblies. Mostly specialists could be part of the government, thus compromising the very interest of the politicians. Contrarily, the parliamentary system of government ensures stakes for almost all political parties and leaders active in the mainstream. Even a party with a couple of seats in the parliament could somehow secure for itself a share in the cabinet or power corridors.

Now the fundamental question is that whether Pakistanis could and should ponder over an alternative political system? Against this backdrop, one has to look into the merits of a possible presidential system in the country. The foremost reason in this regard is that parliamentary politics and system of governance result in polarization and conflicts in society and the political system due to which the biggest victims are policymaking and governance and ultimately the people. Noticeably, the parliamentary political system is set up on constituency-based elections and power struggle. Fundamentally, Pakistan is a traditional, rural and tribal society where constituencies are inhabited by a few families, biraderis (lineage groups) or tribes having historical enmities and feuds. More often, these different social groups struggle for power at the local level which at times becomes quite intimate and violent. Moreover, the dominate groups at the constituency or local level manipulate the system by intimidating the people. In the presidential system, local groups having personal, familial, tribal interests cannot dominate politics while local influentials, whether Chaudhrys, Khans, Nawabs, Waderas and Wajas, etc cannot dictate the political system. In the presidential system, every citizen has really an equal chance of becoming a president or a provincial governor.

Thus, if we have to look for the issues of our unviable and unresponsive social and economic system, we have to search for the causes in the political system, which really needs a complete overhaul.

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