A case for a presidential system


Last year’s general elections saw another successful transition of democratic government. The electoral campaign, in each constituency, without exception, promised riches, development works, jobs, an odd airport and… dams – but we are not going there! Never mind the slogans on the national level, every returning or aspiring candidate gave, like before, administrative assurances of works to be done to their electorate in the constituency; results that only an executive arm can deliver. There is little consultation or discussion at the constituency or local level, away from the capital, on the legislative reforms or agenda before or after the elections. This style of campaign, and expectations harnessed from members of the houses; provincial and national, due to reliance on their promises, are not in accord with the parliamentary system of government. This is akin to a presidential model.
Like other parliamentary and federal systems, our structure of government does not envisage pure separation of powers. The executive is drawn from the treasury benches of the parliament. Chapter 3 of Part III of our Constitution deals with the Federal Government which is headed by a prime minister acting as its chief executive, including the cabinet; federal ministers, ministers of state and advisors. The ministers, for instances, under the Rules of Business, 1973 are in-charge of the respective divisions of the executive. Notwithstanding the size of the federal cabinet and the additional duties as executive heads under the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, 2007 of the parliament; the principal task of all members inside the house, sitting at the back or front benches, is legislation. This is where we have a yawning gap between practice and the spirit of a parliamentary system.
Our political culture does not compliment the system of governance we have put in place. Parliament, in addition, to a legislative body, is also supposed to be a center of all political and policy debate. Every major policy decision, in accord with the principles of responsible government, has to be introduced in the house and debated before a decisive action is undertaken. But our members simply don’t show up for the sessions. Year after year, reports are compiled showing poor attendance of members in the national assembly. Even when they do attend sessions; they mostly bang the desks. Major well received speeches of the current Prime Minister enunciating his vision have been made outside the parliament.
People who voted for PTI in the last general elections, essentially voted for Imran Khan. Elections here are personality-centric. Political parties seek power and their members rally behind a charismatic or powerful leader who they hope would usher each one of them to an election victory.
In a parliamentary system you can’t elect your leader from every constituency – hence the reliance on electables. A presidential system allows the parties who seek election to the house to lay out their agendas, reforms, legislation during the election campaign. In effect, to make a case in their manifestos, as to how they are different and not two sides of the same coin. This, in turn, allows political parties to grow and inform the political culture of the country. A house in a presidential system can also be an effective check on an executive and the president as its head – unlike in a parliamentary system.
Pakistan is the eighteenth largest country in terms of area and the sixth most populated country in the world. Governance that delivers efficiently and expeditiously is a key challenge for our political system. Thus far, even after the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment and enactment of local government statutes across the provinces; devolution, by and large, has failed on key deliverables. One of the major impediments has been the lack of political will to devolve the power to the grassroot level.
This stems from our political culture where the respective members of provincial assemblies in a province have been able to obstruct fiscal autonomy in order to jealously guard their political clout in their respective constituencies. Separation of legislature from executive and greater clarity in their roles is needed to avoid such conflicts. Presidential system, with a governor heading the executive branch in the provinces, allows for that.
Every political system is imperfect. But systems are not an end in themselves but rather a means to an end. Notwithstanding, the chequered constitutional history of our country, a presidential system, for a large and a diverse country, is more suitable than a parliamentary system. More importantly, every political system is meant to capture the underlying political culture; a mix of many variants, and enable aspirations, realizations and behavior that elevate the state and its instrumentalities. Remember, a political system is a legal fiction created by law, and laws can always be amended to propel societies forward.