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Cautious winds of 'change' blowing in Pakistan – Part I : What’s happening ?

By Waqar Naz
Posted Oct 8, 2010 in Politics
In Pakistan, there has been a good bit of speculation and buzz going on in the national news media and talkshows about a political weather storm slowly forming and gaining momentum for many months now. These conjectures about the demise of the present set-up and what the country's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has dubbed "unjustified propaganda campaign" by "some undemocratic forces" have been providing a convenient fodder of visibility and self-promotion for the always camera-ready politicians and journalists.
They are also titillating millions of average Pakistani folks who, despite having to face the bitter realities of the daily life, consider discussing, debating and ranting about politics, a national pastime besides playing and watching Cricket (as well as discussing, debating and ranting about the game losses, celebrity-status players, match-fixings and state of the sport itself).
The PM, on his part, has been doing what he could to dismiss and dispel these speculations which were fueled in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to ever hit the country in the form of rains and flooding resulting in thousands losing their lives, millions becoming homeless without means to earn a living and millions of dollars of damage to lands, equipment and property.
At an Award Achievement ceremony held at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Gilani, in a departure from his usual mild-mannered characteristic poise, lashed back at the opponent political forces asking to name the person they wanted to see in power against the government led by Pakistan People's Party (PPP). He articulated his resolve that “Any conspiracy to sabotage the democratically elected government will not succeed.”
“Those who demand change must answer who is the alternate. We will not renounce on anyone’s order. There is no threat to our government with any unconstitutional measure … those thinking so are wasting their time,” he added.
Where did Popeye get his dose of spinach from ?
Why the sudden mood swing ? Perhaps it was a manifestation of some confidence that he regained from an endorsement of both him as well as President Asif Ali Zardari at a high level cabinet meeting the day before. That raises the question as to who are those "undemocratic forces" and quarters that are trying to destabilize the government or otherwise suggesting a "change of the scene”.
Just a few days ago, at a press conference held at the PM house, he rejected the perception that his government was under pressure to take drastic steps to improve the economy, implement the apex court’s decisions and reduce the size of the cabinet. He also acknowledged that inflation and incidents of suicides had not been controlled declaring that he “will take difficult decisions if these are in the larger interest of the nation.” He also said that he was at good terms with Nawaz Sharif, the former PM and the chief of the largest faction of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and didn't need an invitation to meet him.
Yousaf Raza Gilani  Prime Minister of Pakistan
Yousaf Raza Gilani, Prime Minister of Pakistan
Mandate to govern : An elusive target
Due to a multitude of political parties actively participating in elections, the votes often get split several ways with no one party getting even close to a majority and thus a true "mandate". (One notable exception in recent history were the 1997 Legislative Elections when PML-N had a landslide victory sweeping 137 out of the 207 seats excluding 20 reserved for women and 10 reserved for religious minorities). The general elections of 2008 were no exception though and the bulk of the popular vote was distributed among the PPP (30.6 percent), PML-N (19.6 percent) and PML-Q (23 percent), the party supporting then-president Pervez Musharraf.
Although PML-N's share of the popular vote was smaller than PML-Q, it won nearly twice as many seats in the parliament as PML-Q. For the PPP, it was a no-brainer to forge a political alliance with PML-N against the administration of the military (and later a short-lived civilian) rule of Musharraf. Later on, however, during backroom negotiations to form a coalition government, Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N were kept at bay and essentially locked out of any significant share of the power in the present administration. Both the PM and the president were chosen from the PPP. Since then, PML-N has reemerged as the government's major opposition inside and outside the parliament.
Sharif has been choosing his words carefully. He has said, on more than one occasion, that if the government doesn't take enough steps to improve the country's overall condition including the current crisis, then a change is warranted but he is also quick to add that any such change should come by constitutional means. His assertion has been articulated further by another PML-N leader suggesting that mid-term elections should be held.
According to Dr. Babar Awan, the Federal Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, there is no provision in the constitution for a mid-term election. Far from me being a constitutional scholar, I do know that the system of government in Pakistan is a parliamentary framework devised by the British and inherited by many of their former colonies (including Canada). The PM must be an elected Member of the Parliament (MP) but the people do not vote for him or her directly to become the head of the government at the federal level (as they do in a presidential system such as the one in the USA). The people vote for the candidate of their choice from among those who are running for an MP seat in their respective constituencies (ridings) and leader of the party (or coalition) holding a majority of the seats in the parliament is usually the one nominated and elected as the PM.
A little digging into the country's constitutional history would reveal that Pakistan, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, has adopted a variation of the Westminster system of government to be a Commonwealth Republic (as opposed to a Commonwealth Realm such as Canada) where the Queen as the constitutional Head of State and the Governor-General as her remote representative have been replaced with a sovereign and (at least on paper) homegrown Pakistani as a nominal holder of executive power but essentially a ceremonial figurehead ... namely the President.
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan.
Photo courtesy of White House
Who is really in-charge ?
The constitution, as per the spirit and traditions of a parliamentary system, has always favored the PM intrinsically in terms of the division of power and responsibilities between the president and the PM. As a practical matter though, hardly any civilian administration has completed its sanctioned term. The concept of the constitution as a living and breathing document has really been abused by rulers, both military and civilian.
The governmental setup, therefore, has been shifting and sliding on a scale between conventional parliamentarianism, Martial Laws, authoritative presidential rules, semi-presidential periods and PM dictatorships. According to the constitution, the president is Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and is elected by an Electoral College (comprising of both houses of the parliament and the four provincial assemblies) for a term of five years. Although a ceremonial Head of State, the president does hold certain residual powers such as dissolution of the parliament and dismissal of the PM. The constitution also does provide a means of removing the president via a resolution of the parliament with at least a two-thirds majority. However, in the currently installed parliament with PPP (the party president Zardari comes from), holding 124 out of 340 seats, that's a mathematical impossibility.
On the other hand, the sweeping powers amassed by the presidency under former rulers, such as Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf, have been curtailed through the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution this past April. The president will no longer be able to dismiss the National Assembly (federal parliament) or declare emergency in any province unilaterally as well as appoint the head of the Election Commission. With Zardari signing the amendment into law, this was the first time in the country's history that a sitting president relinquished a significant part of his powers willingly and transferred them to parliament and the office of the PM.
Another significant implication of the 18th amendment is the removal of the two-term limit for the PM, opening a door for Nawaz Sharif to seek the office again. Contrary to the Motion of No Confidence provided by the governmental systems of most parliamentary democracies (such as U.K. and Canada), Pakistani constitution does not explicitly provide a democratic recall mechanism (such as mid-term elections) to institute a change of government. The only embedded method is the invocation of Article 58 of the constitution by the president under unusual circumstances (although any such action is subject to Supreme Court approval). Invocation, amending and exploitation of Article 58 has been highly controversial and a source of conflict and contentions for several decades.
Part II : Judiciary as new sheriff in town
Part III : From within or outside the system ?
Credit / CYA : This article draws on author's interest and knowledge, coupled with news and historical background research. It is an effort to compose an opinion / analysis piece conveying a distinct set of views or otherwise provide personal insight into life and the world we live in. It may incorporate preexisting terms, phrases, definitions, direct or indirect quotes and other snippets of information while respecting the norms of fair use.