Save the sapling of democracy in the winter of discontent! (16-01-2009)

No sooner a democratic government is sworn in Islamabad, we hear that it is about to go. We hear about the cracks in the government. We hear the corruption stories. We hear that the government is inefficient. We hear that the constitution is being violated. As usual should we blame the agencies and army? Should we blame the scheming opposition? Should we, like always, blame an international conspiracy to destabilise the government? Pause. This time it seems the onus of instability reports is more on the ruling coalition. And of course on some impatient critics who are not familiar with the painful process through which democratic institutions grow in any society.

While the reports about the fall of the government seem to be too pre-mature, the signs of power struggle between the President and the Prime Minister are now out in public. The actions are speaking louder than the denial by both sides. The Prime Minister has unceremoniously dismissed National Security Adviser Maj. General (Retd.) Durrani. His fault was speaking the truth, but without taking his “official” boss in confidence. He says that he had discussed it with President Zardari. Everybody believes that the President is the de-facto chief executive of the country, and de jure chief executive is not the real boss. This perception is strongly embedded in Islamabad’s official and media circles; hence Durrani’s faux pa that cost him his job is understandable.

Now this is where the trouble lies in Pakistan. President Zardari alone cannot be blamed for transgressing his powers and over-shadowing the chief executive of the country indiscreetly. Living in a quasi-feudal society we have inherited this mind set. Right from the very beginning Pakistani politicians have been confused on whether they want a presidential or a parliamentary system. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah opted to be the Governor General and not the prime minister, although inspired by the 1935 Government of India Act Pakistan’s constitutional framework was parliamentarian. On the other side Jawaharlal Nehru opted to be the prime minister. There after only three head of states remained within the constitutional parameters – Khawaja Nazimuddin (Governor General), Ch. Fazal Elahi (President during Bhutto era and Justice Rafiq Tarrar in Nawaz Sharif’s second term). They were thorough gentlemen who respected the constitution.

Even today most of the people who talk about clipping the presidential powers joke about the three honourable Heads of State who did not trespass in to PMs domain. We have seen how in the past the opposition, the army and some journalists pushed the successive presidents to cross the line drawn for them.

There has been little realization among the past presidents that even the most unassuming Prime Minister like Junejo tried to exercise his constitutional powers. For attempting to claim his constitutional space he was sacked by the all powerful President Zia. So the moment a prime minister starts taking himself seriously and is nudged by his supporters to assert, he is bound to have problems with the over ambitious president and the establishment which backs him.

Such has been the fate of this country. Now who wins, remains to be seen? President Zardari’s position is different. It is yet not clear which side the real powers that be will tilt. It seems this time it might be the prime minister if the American influence is disregarded.

But the fact is President Zardari has retained his position as co-chairman, which might enable him to use inner-party clout to remove Prime Minister Gilani if the need be. (Although as Head of State he should have stepped down from the party leadership in good grace). So he doesn’t need to invoke the infamous 58(2) B and pack-up the National Assembly along with the Prime Minister if things come to a real impasse. In any case dissolution of National Assembly doesn’t suit him, because mid-term elections are likely to reduce PPP seats drastically in Punjab.

Some of President Asif Zardari’s critics in PPP and media think that the President should be more subtle and discrete in dealing with the Prime Minister. They are right. He should keep the sanctity of the division of power between the President and the Prime Minister according to the spirit of the constitution given by his party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Prime Minister Gilani was Mr. Zardari’s choice, they are not from the same party but are jail buddies.

In the interest of strengthening the democratic institutions in the country and his personal interest, best approach for the president would be to remain in the background, avoid daily media coverage and avoid giving direct executive orders like how to fix the load-shedding or economic problems. If he wants to take the credit of responding to the people’s immediate problems he should not forget that the blame for failures (which are more likely) will also fall on him. He should advise his jail buddy privately and not in public or in full media lime light. He should keep his cards close to his chest. For instance he spoke too soon on moving fast on normalisation of relations with India. And then had his own Kargil in Mumbai. Mr. President a low-key profile is good for you if you want to redeem your image and don’t want to fall into the old trap.

PPP leadership should recognise that the parliamentary system was consciously adopted by the founding fathers of the country because it is suitable for the multi-ethnic societies. Heterogeneous India has successfully maintained a parliamentary democracy since independence. We have never heard the President of India over-stepping the constitutional powers. No Indian prime minister is heard cribbing about the interference of the President in his day-to-day working.

Presidential systems, which are majoritarian in nature, are not suitable for a multi-ethnic federal governmental structure. Already Pakistan has many pending volatile power sharing issues when it comes to the relations between the center and the provinces. The country is faced with multiple internal and external threats; it’s not the time for the ruling leadership to squabble for power and blessed protocol importance!

( Blog:

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