There have been many administrative reforms in Pakistan throughout its history – and the country has even experimented with a parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential system. In recent times, the debate between Pakistan’s parliamentary system vs a possible presidential system has reignited in the public’s consciousness. The country, throughout history, has experienced different kinds of governments; from democracy to military dictatorship, to civilian martial law by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Pakistan inherited its current government system, the parliamentary form of government, from its former colonial rulers, the British. Ironically, while the parliamentary system has been successful for governance in the latter, the case for Pakistan is on the contrary.
The failure of the parliamentary system in the country has raised many reservations. Does a single solution of a parliamentary form of government resolve all problems? Considering the varying demography, culture, and history of both countries, how can one size be fit for all? Recently, a debate on transitioning to the presidential system has surfaced on social media. The population is divided between the pros and cons of each form of the governing system.
However, in either case, the overarching concern is for the delivery of democracy and good governance to the grass-root level. Both schools of thought are, hence, unanimous regarding their concern for a strong government. The question, however, remains as to which of the governing systems can deliver upon these values effectively.
Pakistan has experienced both forms of governments, yet a large number of the population is unaware of the merits and demerits of either; an essential understanding is lacking about the deep-seated problems vested within the governmental structure of Pakistan. One of the major reasons for this downfall is the perennial tug of war for power.
Understanding the Presidential and Parliamentary Systems
Many in the country believe that the presidential system is synonymous with dictatorship as it is a ‘one-man’ rule. The main cause behind this perception is that some leading analysts and media persons continue to protect the parliamentary system that has bogged the nation down. To clear such fallacies, one must understand the true meanings and merits of the presidential system.
It is erroneous to tantamount the presidential system with dictatorship as those are two different notions. Moreover, the presidential system is a form of the democratic system; many countries which are perceived as the torchbearers of democracy are under this form of governance. The champions of democracy must realize that the presidential system fuels the argument for effective democracy and is not undemocratic.
In the presidential system, the president is elected by the people directly which makes the power concentrated in his office. This makes the perception of a one-man rule somehow true yet it also leads to a strong government. It preserves the head of the government from the fear of being ousted by the opposition which leads to a focus on public development and service delivery.
This lack of fear also entails the depoliticization of administration; talented and skilled manpower is sought to ensure efficient service delivery as the president must maintain his/her popularity with the masses. Moreover, the coercion for compromises inflicted by opposition parties is not there. It provides irrevocable fixed terms to legislators and executives.
As far as the question of one-man rule is concerned, the president can be impeached by the approval of both houses; the process of impeachment is quite intricate as compared to the parliamentary system. This provides the government with enough strength to deliver favorable services to the common citizens of the nation.
The presidential system engages talented people and paves the way for good governance by limiting the legislature to focus on governance and delivery. In the presidential system, unlike the parliamentary system, the budgetary allocations and spending are delegated to the people at the grass-root level in union councils with checks and rudimentary transparency. The presidential system ensures the separation of power between the legislative and executive branches.
It is relevant to mention here that the presidential system ensues the peril of becoming a dictatorship in some cases if the president starts to victimize its political rivals; it becomes complicated to halt his/her activities through impeachment due to the complexity of the system. It can further augment the notion of being discriminating amongst minorities or those factions which are not averse to the president on an ethnic or lingual basis.
On the other hand, the parliamentary system is much weaker in terms of strength as compared to the presidential system. Impeaching a prime minister is easier in the parliamentary system than doing so in the presidential system. The government thus remains perplexed about its stability as there is no irrevocable fixed term of the executive and legislatures in the parliamentary system.
This forces the governments to make inevitable compromises and compensations to the opposition parties to keep the government intact. These compromises result in a friendly opposition and can hamper a check on the government because the former often seems eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latter to protect its vested interest – which is not about the public service delivery in most cases.
The advocates of the parliamentary system posit that it provides equal representation and voice to all the people of the state without discrimination. A major demerit of the parliamentary system is that it does not separate the power between the executive and legislative branches of the government which leads to the politicization of the administration of the country. This politicization then stimulates the culture of patronage, corruption, and a decline in reliance upon professionalism.
Successful Presidential Systems in the World
The United States is exemplary for a successful presidential system. In the US, the presidential system has been deployed since the inception of the country. The United States is a cauldron of different cultures making it a heterogeneous society. The success of the presidential system in the US is no secret; it was its governmental structure that made it a superpower in the world despite being a former colony of Britain which is a parliamentary democracy.
One of the salient features of the United States’ governmental structure is its system of checks and balances of the legislature, judiciary, and executive which ensures the functioning of the three branches constitutionally and in favor of the public interest.
The country has made unprecedented progress in history due to its strong government which may not be the case in the parliamentary system. The system hampers the president to victimize his political rivals thus negating the notion that it can lead to dictatorship. Furthermore, the powers concentrated in the office of the president enable him/her to make crucial decisions that are in favor of the country without compromising with the opposition to secure his/her term.
The presidential form of democracy and its performance in the country amply denote that this form of government can produce exemplary impact, particularly in cases where the parliamentary system has failed – Turkey is one such example.
One cannot disagree with the sharp rise in the soft power among the Muslim countries and progress of Turkey in the recent past which was not possible erstwhile. For this purpose, Turkey revoked its parliamentary system and adopted the presidential system. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the former prime minister of the country – has changed the system of the government in the country to ensure strong governance, allowing him to take prompt decisions for the good of the country.
The powers are now separate in the country. Legislative powers are vested in the Grand National Assembly while executive powers are exercised by the Council of Ministers which is directly appointed and headed by the president. The rationale behind the change in the structure of government in Turkey was to have a strong government that could make bold and efficient decisions without facing hindrances from the opposition.
The example of China and Russia would be pertinent to cite here as the governmental structure in both these countries concentrates powers in the office of the president. Some might oppose these examples as they are not democratic countries, however, these countries comprise strong and stable federal governments which along with many other factors have contributed to the rise of both these nations in the 21st century.
Parliamentary System vs Presidential System in Pakistan
Good governance has been the core issue of the country. Pakistan has experienced both forms of government in history: the presidential form under the military rules and also during the civilian martial law of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and the parliamentary system during the democratic regimes. If we look at the facts and figures of the progress and prosperity of the country, it is easily understandable that the country was doing well in terms of improving living standards, education, health, and development during the three military regimes when the presidential system was in effect.
Pakistan comprises of heterogeneous society and all the segments of the society must get equal representation in the government which is only possible in the parliamentary system. This argument is used by the advocates of the parliamentary system in the country but the question is has this equal representation resolved the issues of the people that are being represented? The answer is a big no.
The local body system was also endorsed in its true spirit as stated by Ishrat Hussain, Advisor for Institutional Reforms and Austerity of Pakistan, in his book Governing the Ungovernable: Institutional Reforms for Democratic Governance in Pakistan. Although the presidential form of the government was experienced under the non-democratic military rule yet the progress made during the military rule by no means justifies the intervention of non-democratic forces in the democratic process.
The plight of the people of Baluchistan, Sindh, and FATA is an utter substantiation of the bad performance of the parliamentary system. Most of the politicians in the country are averse to the debate on the change in the governmental structure arguing that the presidential system is dictatorial. In reality, the presidential system is not undemocratic instead it is one of the forms of the democratic systems imposed in many countries of the world.
The presidential system is not perilous for the democracy but, in reality, it is a threat to the vested interest of the corrupt political elite of the country. Many argue that the parliamentary system is working well in Britain, Canada, and many other countries but the reality is that the literacy level in these countries is much higher than that of Pakistan.
Most of the politicians in the latter country are feudal lords who lack the essential knowledge regarding the functioning of the democracy and parliamentary system, and also the competence to rule the country effectively. It is a common perception in the country that most politicians are corrupt and they participate in politics to serve their interests.
Pakistan inherited the parliamentary system from its former colonial ruler. The structure bequeathed by the British to the subcontinent was deliberately designed to centralize the monopolistic control through political mafias as the former were least concerned about their colonial subjects.
The populace of Pakistan needs service delivery at the grassroots level. For this purpose, a country needs strong, well-structured, and agile local governments which are fully accountable to the people and can also eliminate the notion that resources are not allocated equally in every region which is possible in the presidential system as has been experienced in previous such governments in the country.
The agile local governments can also be used to curb the sentiment of being dealt with unfairly by the central government. If the parliamentary system was able to do so then the plight of Baluchistan would have been different which delineates the failure of the parliamentary system in Pakistan.
The wealthy elite, through the parliamentary system, succeed to reach the apex ministries in Pakistan based on its influence while being incompetent. The history of the country is replete with such instances. Unfortunately, the country’s politicians who are seen to be the torchbearers of the democracy manifest such undemocratic attitudes.
One such example is the statement of the Minister of Railway after the recent accident when he refused to resign from his office. If a similar incident would have happened in Britain or any other parliamentary country, the situation would have been otherwise. Hence, keeping the undemocratic attitude of the people and politicians of the country in mind, it is unjust to compare the country with Western countries where the parliamentary system is performing best.
In Pakistan, a fresh debate on the parliamentary system vs the presidential system must be launched by the political scientists and leading think tanks to assess which form of government is most effective for the country’s performance. Pakistan severely needs strong governance and political stability in light of its declining condition under the parliamentary system.
This failure, by no means, advocates the military’s intervention in the country. Nevertheless, the political elite must become actualized of their corruption and incompetency which paves the way for non-democratic forces to intervene.
A change of system or at the very minimum, a healthy and lucrative debate on this subject is crucially needed for the continuity of democracy in the country, and further to remove the resentments of the minority factions and the destitute of the country. The essential concern must remain the amelioration of the plight of the people and not merely an adherence to a specific governance form.
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