Mainstream opposition parties in Pakistan have recently alleged that efforts are on to introduce the presidential system in the country by replacing the constitutionally-provided parliamentary system of government. In this regard criticism and raising the alarm by the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is quite noteworthy. Although the PPP leadership has not clearly identified who is trying to bring the presidential system in the country yet indirectly it means that the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan along with the establishment, are attempting to bring presidential system in the country. While statements of PPP leaders about the presidential system in Pakistan are not quite substantive, they have triggered an important debate about the effectiveness of the existing parliamentary system and thinking about the presidential system as an alternative.
Whether Pakistan should have a parliamentary or presidential system is for the people to decide, most of the political parties, groups and forces in Pakistan have been portraying the presidential system as something that is “undemocratic.” Therefore, whenever there emerged a debate in the country on the introduction of the presidential system or for that matter, looking for alternatives than the failed parliamentary system of governance, political parties and their leaders start criticizing the debate. Against this backdrop, it is important to clarify that the presidential system is also a democratic system of governance as is the parliamentary system.
There are certain important reasons due to which our political parties and leaders have been against the presidential system of governance and depicting it as “undemocratic.” The foremost is that for the first time when the presidential system was introduced in the country it was by General Ayub Khan, who framed the 1962 Constitution, which provided for the presidential system of governance. Although Ayub Khan’s era was the golden period insofar as economic development in the country is concerned, yet the iron-hand with which he dealt with opposition parties, including religious parties, was indeed oppressive. However, it was the fault of General Ayub Khan’s personality or his aims and not the presidential system.
Another very important reason due to which political parties and groups in Pakistan have been against the presidential system of government has been that the system does not give much stakes to many of the political groups and leaders. Because in a presidential system, there has to be one unified head of government in the country and in provinces and the president and governors’ cabinet members and ministers ought not to be members of the parliament or provincial assemblies and could be anyone. It means that non-political persons, mostly technocrats, could be part of the government, thus compromising the very interest of the politicians, whose ultimate aim is to get power. On the other hand, the parliamentary system of government ensures stakes for almost all political parties and leaders active in the mainstream. For instance, a party getting even a couple of seats of parliament could somehow secure for itself a share in cabinet or power by appropriating chairmanship of parliamentary committees. Even regional parties could have a share in power by contesting elections for provincial governorships or becoming a coalition partner and getting some cabinet berths. In other words, political parties and leaders limited to a region, province or even a few districts could be in power through parliamentary politics. For instance, in Pakistan Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), various Sindhi and Baloch ethno-linguistic parties have been part of the power corridors even by winning a handful of parliamentary seats. Against this backdrop, Pakistani political parties’ antagonism towards the presidential system is understandable. Even the so-called national parties, like Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have, to all intents and purposes, been a provincial party, limited only to the Punjab and a few pockets of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Importantly, when the PML-N won a majority in the 2013 national elections, it did not win even one of the 60 plus National Assembly seats from Sindh and hardly a few from the KP and Balochistan and winning almost all its seats from the Punjab. On the other hand, another traditional national party, the PPP, over the course of time, has become a party limited only to Sindh. In 2013, it won only a single seat of the 140 plus National Assembly seats from the Punjab and none from KP. Whereas in 2018, it has again been wiped out in the Punjab, KP and Balochistan provinces. Despite it the PPP is well ensconced in power in the Sindh province. So, the presidential system does not suit the political parties interests and that is fundamentally “power”.
Now the important question is that whether the presidential system is good for Pakistan or not? There are a number of reasons to arrive at the conclusion that the presidential system could be a far better system, keeping in view social, political and economic realities of Pakistan. Here, one important aspect of the parliamentary political system is that it is based on constituency-based elections and power struggle. Pakistan is fundamentally a traditional, rural and tribal society where constituencies are inhabited by a few families, biraderis (lineage groups) or tribes having historical enmities and feuds. Often these social groups struggle for power at the local level, which at times, becomes quite violent. Moreover, the dominate groups at the constituency or local level manipulate the system by intimidating the people. In the presidential system, that is not possible.
Moreover, in the presidential system, legislative and executive authority unlike the parliamentary system, rests in different organs of the state. This leads to quality policymaking and governance and these two areas have been key problems of Pakistan. In the presidential system, the chief executive, which in this case is the president, has relative freedom to implement policies and come up with innovative projects and strategies for development and raising the life standard of the majority of people.
Another very important aspect of the presidential system in that parochial and separatist-minded political parties and groups do not have any chance to get power. Parochialism has been a key issue of the country which led to its dismemberment in 1971. Ethno-linguistic political parties although are important in democracy, yet if they make the system hostage, as has been the case in Pakistan, then the parties cause instability. The presidential system is, therefore, the panacea to put an end to parochialism.
Thus presidential system is not at all undemocratic as has always been portrayed by political parties in Pakistan because it comprises their very basic interest of attainment of power. On the other hand the presidential system as a lot of merits for Pakistan. But again it is up to the people which system they want to adopt. Having said this it must be understood that only those system which fulfils the basis needs of majority of people and raise their standard of life prevail and unfortunately the parliamentary system has extensively failed to deliver the much-needed goods to the people of Pakistan.