NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 41

Rethinking Pakistan’s political system

After months of speculation, the National Assembly was officially dissolved on August 9, following the advice of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and on the directive of President Dr. Arif Alvi. This marked the initiation of the process to establish an interim caretaker government. Interestingly, a surprising candidate, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, emerged as the consensus choice for the caretaker Prime Minister, receiving nominations from both the outgoing Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, Raja Riaz.

It’s crucial to underline that in accordance with the Pakistan Constitution, the primary role of the caretaker Prime Minister and the cabinet is to extend complete cooperation to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure fair, free, and timely elections. The provision regarding timely elections stipulates a maximum of 90 days in case the National Assembly is dissolved before its full five-year term. In this context, it’s noteworthy that PM Shehbaz Sharif chose to dissolve the National Assembly merely four days prior to the completion of its five-year tenure. Consequently, elections must be held no later than November 10, 2023.

However, a recent announcement from the ECP has cast uncertainty over the possibility of holding elections within the 90-day window. The reason cited is the approval of the latest national census during the last Council of Common Interest (CCI) meeting. This implies that the upcoming elections should be based on the updated census data. The CCI serves as a constitutional platform where the federal government and all provincial governments convene to deliberate upon critical constitutional and socio-economic matters.

Following the ECP’s declaration of its inability to adhere to the 90-day election timeframe, it becomes apparent that the elections are unlikely to be conducted within this constitutional limit. Unless the Supreme Court of Pakistan  intervenes as the guardian of the Constitution to enforce timely elections, the current trajectory suggests an overstepping of the stipulated timeline. The constitutionality of the ECP’s stance rests in the hands of the SC, as there are substantial concerns within the legal community about the validity of the last CCI meeting. Notably, the participation of caretaker governments representing Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces in the CCI meeting has raised questions about their constitutionality.

Irrespective of the eventual legal outcome, one clear consequence emerges: the elections are likely to breach the 90-day constitutional limit. Such a scenario would destabilize the constitutional order, allowing the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Anwaar Kakar to continue its rule without a formal mandate.

This situation prompts a critical examination of the ongoing relevance of Pakistan’s parliamentary political system, as enshrined in the 1973 state Constitution. Despite arguments put forth by various quarters, including constitutional experts and political factions, it becomes evident that the existing system may no longer be suitable. Historically, one contended that the parliamentary political system in Pakistan has struggled to effectively address the core issues faced by the nation and its citizens. This has led to a disconnect between the system and the needs of the electorate.

In fact, the limitations of the parliamentary political system became evident a mere four years after its inception. The instance of the 1978 elections, during which Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto engaged in significant electoral manipulation to consolidate his power, serves as a prime example. This prompted the formation of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), comprising nine opposition parties, in response to Bhutto’s actions. Subsequently, General Zia-ul-Haq, the Chief of Army Staff at the time, imposed martial law, curtailed political activities, and incarcerated Bhutto along with other political figures. The eventual execution of Bhutto and General Zia’s subsequent military dictatorship for eleven years marked a significant blow to the parliamentary political system.

In essence, the political leaders themselves bear responsibility for undermining the viability of the parliamentary political framework.

The National Assembly was dissolved by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who headed a coalition of 13 parties. These parties have once again made the decision, albeit unconstitutionally, to postpone elections by endorsing the previous national consensus. This decision was made shortly before the dissolution of the National Assembly. Instead of promptly convening a meeting of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) upon the completion of the National Assembly’s tenure, as stipulated, both federal and provincial governments delayed this process. The intention behind this delay, orchestrated by the 13 ruling parties, was to extend the election timeline beyond the bounds set by the Constitution. Consequently, these ruling parties have undermined both the parliamentary processes and the political system they rest upon.

This scenario has ignited a debate surrounding the efficacy of the parliamentary political system’s ability to safeguard itself and empower institutions such as the judiciary to ensure its integrity. If the system fails to protect its own existence, questions arise about its competence in addressing vital societal issues and meeting the people’s aspirations. Thus, if elections occur after the constitutionally designated timeframe, they could potentially lose their significance. Consequently, an opportunity emerges for the nation to break free from a system that has proven ineffective.

Given the prevailing and unprecedented political, economic, constitutional, and resulting social crisis in Pakistan, there is a pressing need for unconventional solutions. The degree of constitutional violation has reached a point where its durability is in question. It is imperative that key decision-makers, including the military establishment, acknowledge the need to move forward and address the country’s challenges. To establish a solid foundation for the country’s governance, a national referendum should be held as a first step. This referendum would gauge public opinion on the preferred political system for the nation. With comprehensive education on the pros and cons of parliamentary, presidential, and proportional representation systems, along with historical context from countries employing these systems and insights into their societal dynamics and developmental trajectories, a majority might incline toward the presidential model.

Only after this deliberative process would elections for a directly-elected president hold value. These elections would then be equipped to meaningfully address the nation’s critical issues and guide the state out of its current crisis.