EDITORIAL: Democracy is antithetical to concentration of power. It is for dispersal of state powers, as against the presidential system of government which breeds tendency towards authoritarianism. We in Pakistan have some people who want a presidential form of government, arguing that the parliamentary form of government has failed to deliver. To them dispersal of state power and provincial autonomy hurt country’s ability to achieve political stability and economic progress. But the question how this system can be changed has no clear answer mainly because of the fact that it is an issue that pertains to the basic structure of the constitution that can, perhaps, only be done by a duly elected constituent assembly. However, under Article 48(6), the prime minister - in this case Imran Khan – can initiate a national referendum to solicit public opinion on the presidential form of government in the country. Since that was not done they petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the prime minister under Article 184(3) to hold a referendum. The apex court has turned down their petitions, saying that it is a political question and it could not intervene in it. “It is the prime minister’s discretion to refer the matter for a referendum on the issue to the joint sitting of the parliament”, the court maintained. However, the court did leave the door ajar for a political party; if political party or parties move the apex court, it may consider the plea or pleas for referendum.
Historically, there have been long enduring spells of presidential form of government in Pakistan. But over the last decade and a half, now the parliamentary form of government is in vogue. All the three questionably celebrated dictators, who ruled Pakistan for almost three decades, had earned questionable legitimacy by way of securing the national acquiescence by holding referendums. One of the judges on the bench hearing the petitions, Justice Muneeb Akhtar, expressed his opinion that “experience of referendums has always been bad for the country”. But the political ambience that prevails today in the country, does suggest that the parliamentary system as in vogue today has rightly invited questions about the efficacy of parliamentary form of government. The prime minister who owes his position to the parliament is a rare presence in the house. Instead of informing the parliament of his opinions and plans he prefers non-elected forums and talks at length about his whims and wishes. One hasn’t come across any of his perceptions and perspectives on the ongoing Afghanistan imbroglio with so much clarity as he exhibited in his recent virtual address at the UN General Assembly or his interviews to foreign media. And insofar as parliament is concerned, its performance in the eyes of a common man is disappointing. Also, for days together National Assembly’s business is hamstrung by lack of quorum. The government prefers governance via ordinances than getting its bills legislated by the parliament.
It increasingly appears that petitioners had approached the apex court for a referendum in favour of presidential system not because they want Imran Khan to become the president of Pakistan; they are actually fed up with the poor performance of federal and provincial governments. In the presidential form of government, the president is head of the executive branch while parliament’s role is confined to legislation. But then there is the problem of leadership change, because the elected presidents tend to become dictators and want to remain in power forever. That being the backdrop, public opinion in Pakistan is divided on the question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the presidential system – and more so when quite a chunk of ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf wants Prime Minister Imran Khan to be the president of Pakistan. Only then can the country move forward, according to PTI supporters. The change in the system of governance cannot, however, be made with a personality-specific argument.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021