The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, though it delivers effectively in England and is fervently admired in Pakistan, is intrinsically ill-suited to the prevailing realities of this land, its people and their need, writes Syed Khawar Mehdi.
[Excerpts of article published on the Dawn website on 13 May 2019]
Parliamentary vs presidential
[By Syed Khawar Mehdi]
The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, though it delivers effectively in England and is fervently admired in Pakistan, is intrinsically ill-suited to the prevailing realities of this land, its people and their needs. Instead, it perniciously and effectively serves political mafias, power brokers and feudal cliques — only to maintain their stranglehold on power without interruption. By no account does the failure of parliamentary democracy justify the military’s historical intrusions and violations, but a weak and unstable system invites all kinds of interference and does not really enjoy the honourable sanctum that its promoters and patrons so intuitively claim when facing critique and censure.
Times have changed, and not just for the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Even the new generation of landed and mercantile class admit that Pakistan’s political system is not only rotten, but delivers poorly on governance. Yet most political leaders, their apologists and many intellectuals remain suspiciously averse to the idea of a debate on the presidential system and want to shoot it down even before giving it a fair trial. So much for being ‘champions of democracy’.
It is vital to initiate a national debate on the form of government that best suits Pakistan.
The future of Pakistan should be above partisan politics. It is vital to initiate a national debate on the form of government that best suits Pakistan, and this must take precedence over political point-scoring and regular mudslinging matches that dominate the prime-time talk shows that define the priorities of the political elite. Some forces will try to get this debate off track and bogged down in partisanship. Nothing is more important than our quest for a stable representative system that delivers democracy and good governance right down to the grass roots. Pakistan’s poor system of government will always remain an obstacle in its advancement towards good governance. It is our collective obligation to seriously scrutinise our system’s essential weaknesses and correct them while we can.
Most Pakistanis are convinced that the presidential system is dictatorial — a one-man rule. It is regrettable how some leading analysts, intellectuals and the media continue to churn out this fallacy only to protect a rotten, mutated system that has bogged us down and is certainly in need of critical review. The reality is that Westminsterian system of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan was deliberately planned and designed to centralise monopolistic control through political mafias and dynasties and does not give two hoots about the interest of the people.
Raising a debate on the presidential form of government and its merits highlights the critical importance of democracy. The presidential system essentially strengthens the argument for an effective form of democracy. It takes people into consideration and delivers on good governance by having legislators focus on governance and delivery rather than budgetary allocations and spending, which in a presidential democracy would be delegated to the people on the ground at the union council level for them to deliver with checks and fundamental transparency.
We essentially need a grid of efficient, well-structured and agile local governments sensitive to our pluralist society and fully accountable to the people.
What Pakistan needs today is effective and efficient local governance, a less burdensome system accessible to the citizens, better and transparent institutions so people can rely on them — simply replacing governments and not fixing institutions will not eradicate corruption, but rather add to it. Let us not forget that the parliament under Westminsterian democracy is only a single institution, and this becomes the very handicap in applying internal checks on the government. The presidential system, on the other hand, relies on institutional checks that are year-round and not merely on electoral checks (which can indeed lead to abuse of power, as has been the case in Pakistan).
A fresh debate has to be launched at leading institutions and think tanks by academics and political scientists on the presidential form of democracy and what model best suits Pakistan. An unbiased appraisal shows that the institutional and electoral checks that exist in a presidential system keep governments on their toes. The additional guarantees come with institutions checking other institutions on a daily basis.
I am no fan of the US, but the presidential form of democracy that has spanned 45 governments amply demonstrates that this system gives far better protection from dictators than the parliamentary system. The presidential system holds firmly even when a cavalier, myopic individual is on the seat, and effectively contains and protects the country and its people from harm. Changing its model of government to the presidential system is the best way to ensure a democracy that works in Pakistan.
The writer is associated with the newly formed think tank, Commonwealth Karachi.
This article was first published in Dawn on 13 May 2019