NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 12

Presidential system: Wishful thinking or propaganda?

A heated debate has once again started in the mainstream and social media about the pros and cons of a presidential system of government after rumours about the imposition of an emergency in the country. Though the government has rubbished the idea and termed it fake news, yet there is a realization among the common people that the current parliamentary system has failed to address their issues.

The opposition claims Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is behind the campaign after it has failed to address public issues. There is no doubt that the PTI government has compounded public problems and it could blame the system for its failure. However, a presidential system could be wishful thinking of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has to face the “blackmailing” of his allies and legislators of his own party. He has to fulfill the demands of his allies and own party legislators whenever he needs their help to legislate in the National Assembly. His razor thin majority in the parliament has compounded his problems. He would love to head a presidential system, where he will be free of all pressures. However, he needs a two-thirds majority to change the system. If he had an overwhelming majority in the parliament, he would not have thought of the presidential system in the first place.

On the other hand, if the opposition is creating the rumours about an emergency and presidential system, it is trying to create an impression that the government has failed on all fronts. However, the PTI government cannot be entirely blamed for the failure of the system which has not evolved according to the needs of modern times. Flaws exist in the justice system, bureaucracy, health, education and all other institutions and departments of the country and the PTI government cannot be blamed for it. However, it has failed to reform them.

According to critics of the government, Pakistan has already become a technocracy and is heading to a presidential system with a large number of technocrats and unelected advisers in the cabinet and legislation through ordinances. They say the induction of so many unelected advisers and special assistants in the cabinet shows Prime Minister Imran Khan’s lack of trust in the abilities of MNAs and senators of his own party. They lament that most important ministries have been assigned to people, who are not answerable to the parliament. In this way, the government has introduced a system which is a mixture of technocracy and the presidential system, they argue.

The opposition parties have also expressed serious concern over the government’s attempt to make laws through ordinances. They also suspect the government is attempting to introduce the presidential system of government in the country. Articles are also appearing in the newspapers in favour of the system. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Shah Farman said if a referendum was held, he would vote for the presidential system.

In a newspaper article, Dr Attaur Rehman, chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, wrote: “According to a hand-written note in his diary, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah noted in 1947 that the British parliamentary system has not worked well anywhere except in Britain and that a presidential system is more suitable. I have a copy of that note and I have had the handwriting verified through the National Defence University as being genuine. Mohammed Ali Jinnah did not live long enough to bring about this change, and after Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination we did not have the quality of leadership needed to think deeply into the problems of the country and how to address them. The refusal to recognise the rights of the Bengalis eventually led to the break-up of the country, and today we find ourselves in a very serious economic crisis with our former finance minister an under-trial absconder, and our former prime minister removed from his position with trials for corruption underway against him.” Counting the advantages of the presidential system, he said, “It allows a better separation of the three major arms of governance, the legislative (parliament), the executive (ministries and other bodies) and the judiciary. Such a separation is not easily possible under a parliamentary system as it is the prime minister who is also the head of the executive and appoints the heads of key institutions including the police, FBR, FIA, SECP, and many other national institutions. It promotes cronyism and nepotism, and it is this overlap of functions that is responsible for the continued economic deterioration of the country.”

Another advantage of the presidential system, he recounts, is that ministers are not chosen from the parliament but the president can pick the best experts from every field. It means that the president can appoint a team of top specialists in the country as cabinet ministers and secretaries, eminent experts who would otherwise not be interested in fighting elections for a specific position. It also blocks the path for corrupt politicians who invest hundreds of millions to get elected to plunder billions once in power, he argues. Advancing his argument against the parliamentary system, he says corrupt governments in the past have ensured that the justice system remains weak so that criminals are never punished. “As the judges have to rely on investigations and prosecutions carried out by the police and government agencies, the appointment of cronies as heads of institutions, like NAB, FIA, SECP, FBR, State Bank etc, often in connivance with the opposition parties, has contributed to the rot. The massive accumulation of foreign debt has brought the country to its knees. Most of the money taken was piled in foreign bank accounts of those in power while the IMF and others looked the other way praising Pakistan for its economic performance. If “democracy” means loot and plunder by those in power while the poor get poorer and the justice system is stifled by improper prosecution and investigation, then I would have none of it.”

The arguments show the presidential system could be wishful thinking of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who finds it difficult to meet the demands of his coalition partners and even his own party members. However, it is not possible in the present situation. The presidential system has its own pitfalls. The government should attempt to resolve national issues in the present system, instead of finding fault with it.