The right system?
MILITARY rule, cali-phate and the Bang-ladesh model have all been proposed over time as alternatives given Pakistan’s inability to achieve good governance through parliamentary democracy.
Military rule has failed repeatedly in Pakistan. The Bangladesh model has failed even in that country. Only a minority yearns for the caliphate after Mullah Omar’s ‘mesmerising’ performance next door.
A recent suggestion to enthral Pakistani imagination has been presidentialism. It is perhaps a sign of stealthily creeping democratic consolidation that even the proposed governance alternatives now conform to democratic principles. However, it is still important to discuss the suitability of presidentialism for Pakistan.
Two forms of presidentialism have been proposed. A pre-eminent Pakistani scientist and Musharraf-era minister proposes a radical presidentialism under a Judicial Council of Elders (JCE) consisting of reputable retired judges.
The president shall appoint a cabinet from the best persons available in the country, and not just parliament. However, the JCE will ultimately approve all cabinet appointees, parliamentary candidates and heads of critical governmental institutions and only allow honest people into top positions.
Seventy per cent of MPs will have to have at least a Master’s degree and the remaining 30 per cent a matriculation certificate.
Only persons educated to secondary-level will vote. Since his proposal violates current constitutional provisions, the writer urges the army and judiciary to amend the constitution accordingly under an interim government.
Fortunately, neither institution seems ready to embrace such a system for it suffers from serious problems. The first problem relates to an unelected and unaccountable JCE having such vast powers. Since felons are already electorally barred for five years, the JCE (consisting of judges who spend their lives judging people based on solid evidence) would presumably also play god by barring non-convicted but potentially corrupt people based on suspicion, hearsay and sixth sense.
As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus, such sweeping powers may corrupt even noble judges.
More worryingly, the proposed educational requirements will bar most Pakistanis from elections. Such a system would bear an uncanny resemblance to that of apartheid-era South Africa and 1800s USA when most citizens were disenfranchised.
The logic put forward by the proponents of those systems was actually similar — the majority lacks political wisdom and only the wise minority should elect and run governments.
While those systems openly barred people from elections based on class and ethnicity, the ex-minister proposes to bar people based on their educational levels.
However, the ultimate impact will be quite similar since poor people and certain ethnicities, e.g., Baloch and Sindhis, will be disproportionately excluded because they have lower educational levels. Since both ethnicities already harbour political grudges, this disproportionate exclusion could further fan separatism.
Governance includes both technical and political elements. The cost of neglecting the technical elements is the administrative incompetence and economic malaise prevailing presently.
Unfortunately, the cost of neglecting the political elements is higher and consists of secessionist tendencies and severe violence. Thus, Pakistan has seen a perpetual merry-go-round to date.
Its elected governments prioritise political compulsions and neglect technical compulsions, with the resulting administrative incompetence ultimately being used to justify army coups. Army rule then prioritises technical elements and neglects political compulsions, and ultimately ends up fanning secessionist tendencies.
This ultimately brings back elected governments, which, despite their weaknesses, constitute the lesser of the two evils in my opinion. The ex-minister warns that if his proposal is not implemented soon, Pakistan will disintegrate. In fact, disintegration is more likely if the proposal is accepted.
Others propose mainstream executive presidentialism with presidents elected directly via universal franchise. Presidentialism ensures greater checks and balances by separating executive functions from parliament; makes the executive directly accountable to people and provides greater stability since parliament cannot easily remove the president.
However, presidentialism can create gridlock if different parties control the executive and parliament and can over-centralise power within the presidency, which may be especially harmful in multi-ethnic countries.
Political scientists endlessly debate the merits of both systems without reaching any consensus, even on hybrid systems. The debate remains unresolved even empirically based on the actual performances of presidential and parliamentary countries since many other variables also affect their performance.
Support for presidentialism in Pakistan is based less on resolving these empirical and theoretical puzzles and more on fond hopes. It is argued that Pakistani parties are controlled by corrupt politicians who do not let good people rise to the top.
The hope is that if people are allowed to elect the occupant of the country’s highest political office directly, they will select honest, capable people who in turn will appoint similar ministers and the whole team will shepherd Pakistan to glory. Everyone will then live happily thereafter under the wise rulers, as in children’s bedtime fairytales.
However, if Pakistanis are really waiting eagerly to elect angels, why don’t such angels win as independents in parliamentary elections?
Winning individual parliamentary seats in a small constituency should be much easier for honest persons with limited funds than winning countrywide presidential elections.
Unfortunately, few honest independents win parliamentary seats in Pakistan. The reasons for this are well-known: the role of powerful families, kinship-based politics and patronage distribution.
Since these features will not disappear just by selecting a new electoral system, presidential elections will also be won by traditional politicians who can utilise these perverse features of Pakistani society effectively.
They in turn will appoint as ministers local influential people who helped them win elections rather than honest, competent people as naively hoped by some people.
Poor governance in Pakistan is not due to the current electoral system but rather to the societal characteristics mentioned above. Until these societal features change, good governance cannot be achieved merely by changing electoral systems.
Fortunately, these perverse features are changing as education, income and urbanisation increases, though at a tortoise-like pace. Unfortunately, like army rule, Bangladesh model and caliphate, presidentialism provides no shortcuts to this lengthy evolutionary process.
The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.