Constitutional Convention

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President Musharraf, under the “Provisional Constitutional Order,” was given the authority to amend the Pakistani Constitution, a power that he has not been shy to exercise. The NRB proposed a wide set of new amendments, and to Musharraf’s credit, there has been serious debate over these measures. The political parties have behaved in a contradictory fashion, on the one hand rejecting Musharraf’s right to amend the constitution, while on the other hand offering a variety of modifications and recommendations that would suggest they accept the parameters of the process.

Many of the proposals are useful, including allowing minorities to vote in the general electorate, although Musharraf also restored their reserved seats. The Senate’s role has been strengthened somewhat, and the most useful changes have to do with women’s participation and the local body system.

For women, about 16% of the Assembly seats are reserved. The main criticism I would have of this is that the reserved seats are not based on actual constituencies, but are to be distributed through a list system that each party will decide on. This will weaken the political base that women holding these seats have, as they owe their position not to defined constituency but to the largesse of the party bosses. It would be preferred to create large electoral districts in which only female candidates run, and they are then tied to a particular region of the country and serve their constituents just like any other member of the assembly.

Musharraf has also kept the notorious amendment that Nawaz Sharif rammed through allowing a party to dismiss from the Assembly any member that votes against the party line. In the Parliamentary system, this is called “floor crossing” and is much less common in mature Parliamentary democracies than in a Presidential system like the US, where congressman often vote against their party leadership’s desires. Although floor crossing is destabilizing to governments, it should not be ground for loss of the seat you were elected to. Only the voters should be able to take that away. This system would prevent votes of conscience, although one could ask if Pakistani politicians have a conscience. The other issue is “votes of confidence” which affirms the right of the current Prime Minister to maintain power. If the government loses its political base, then a vote of confidence is called in the Parliament, and if the government loses, then a new coalition of power must be put together, or the country goes to elections. The American system does not require that as the President is directly elected, and not a member of Congress given executive power by the legislature.

There is a huge difference between the American Presidential and the British Parliamentary system. In the American system, the executive and legislative branches of the government are separate, with the President directly elected, and having the Constitutional power of commander in chief of the armed forces. Congress has little power over the military, although Congress is the only branch that can officially declare war. This leads to tension when the President utilizes the armed forces without asking for a formal declaration of war; in fact the last time the US declared war was World War II.

In the Parliamentary system, the Parliament is supreme, and grants executive power to a committee made up of leading members of Parliament. The head of this special committee is called the Prime Minister, and along with the other members who are selected to be Ministers, make up the cabinet. The end result is that leader of the strongest party in Parliament essentially combines full executive and legislative authority in one person. This makes the Parliamentary system much more susceptible to degenerating into dictatorship, which is what happened in Pakistan in the 1970’s and under Nawaz Sharif’s second term, as he was consolidating his power.

What has made Pakistani politics even more unstable has been the creation of a powerful President. The office of the President is ceremonial in Parliamentary systems, but Zia ul-Haq made it much stronger by granting the President the right to dismiss the government. Sharif took that power away, but it has been reinstated by Musharraf. Musharraf claims that this is necessary to check the power of the Prime Minister, who would otherwise have no constraints on his agenda or behavior.

I agree that we cannot allow Parliamentary dictatorship to take hold, but the answer is not what Musharraf proposes. The real answer is to fully separate the executive and legislative branches of government. The American system is in fact preferable. We should create a directly elected President to be the head of the executive branch, while keeping the National Assembly separate and independent.

To accomplish this, it cannot be done through Musharraf’s decree. What Pakistan needs is a constitutional convention, a grand meeting to rewrite the basic structure of the state. Given the failures of previous attempts at democracy, and the need to fundamentally improve the structure of government to allow it to be truly effective, the basic foundation of the state needs to be improved. A split of executive and legislative power will be a great start.

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