The military regime last Wednesday solicited public opinion for the first batch of 29 constitutional amendments proposed by the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) to improve the performance of political and democratic institutions of the country. The National Security Council (NSC) and the Federal Cabinet will meet after a month to finalize the amendments in the light of suggestions received.
Nobody should have any problems with (1) reducing the term of the National Assembly (NA) and the Senate from five and six years respectively to four (2) increasing the existing 207 NA muslim seats to 357 and (3) reducing the voting age from 21 years to 18 years. It is better for the Assemblies to finish their natural terms (even though reduced) rather than having them artificially shortened by arbitrary authority. The population growth necessitated the increase in seats and the precocious nature of modern youth the decrease in age. The Provinces should be happy with the relative increases in seats, both in the NA and the Provincial Assemblies.
The requirement of graduation for eligibility must be supported. Constitutional or governance issues require adequate literacy, some have considerable legal ramifications. Without that minimum level of education, how can an elected representative do his/her job properly? There was a dire need to increase from 2 members to 4 the strength of the Election Commission (EC), this will reduce the workload while making the proceedings more democratic. That the President can name any MNA from among those elected to be PM is counter-productive, it opens the system to manipulation and negates the concept of Parliamentary democracy. The person must be appointed whose party has either a clear majority or displays evidence publicly that he (or she) has a coalition with an absolute majority in Parliament. The same would also hold true for Governors appointing Chief Ministers. In the present proposal, the President’s “favorite” can indulge in bargaining with the MPs (“horse-trading” in democratic lingo) for getting the majority vote in the NA. Taken in conjunction with the proposal of dismissing an elected PM at his will, the President will virtually hold a Sword of Damocles over the neck of the PM, members will shift loyalties due to influence and/or “incentives” to whosoever the President desires. Pervez Musharraf has his heart in the right place but the past three years have shown that the selection of managers from those shortlisted by GHQ’s monitoring team can be quite atrocious. Failed technocrats sent home on “golden handshake”, being not recommended for promotion by their superiors, for as much as Rs 40 million (tax-free?), were made heads of the largest budget corporate entities in the country. Exceptions are the Shaukat Mirzas, Moinuddin Khans, Shaukat Tareens and Zubyr Soomros, they sacrificed large personal benefits to come to help of their country.
The previous indirect method of electing Senators was extremely corrupt, counter-productive to all logical democratic concepts. One must support direct elections of Senators and the fact that no independent candidates will be allowed. The method of applying Proportional Representation (PR) is not clearly understood, will it be Province-wise or the whole country will be one constituency? The number of reserved women seats needed to be increased, we certainly must have more women in the Senate and the Assemblies, it must be made mandatory for political parties to give at least 30% of their seats to women. The participation of Ulema in reserved seats in the NA and Senate in Shoora proceedings will act as a salve for the religious right, they tend to resort to extremism if left totally out in the cold from the democratic, if not governing, process.
The NRB has correctly proposed that loan defaulters should not be allowed to contest the elections, or those with corruption cases or sentences in various crimes. This would also apply to those sentenced in absentia, politicians who did not dare face the music and thus escaped trial. Since the principal leaders of the two main political parties fall within these categorization, the two major parties believe this amendment was specially framed to keep Ms Benazir and Mian Nawaz Sharif out of Pakistan’s mainstream politics. They remain potent political figures in Pakistan today and have been (and can) run their parties by remote control from abroad, it shows up the bankruptcy of our democratic system that depends upon individuals rather than institutions. The democratic system can be suspect, here as well as elsewhere, even Madam Marcos, with untold illegal wealth secreted abroad, and her son Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr got elected as Senator in the Philippines. Despite the tremendous potential among both the parties, they do not have the courage of questioning their leaders about their alleged corruption.
The constitutional amendments also necessitate a party getting 10% of the total vote before getting a seat in the National Assembly but one feels that the same percentages must apply as for the Senate, i.e. 5% or regional parties will not get seats in the NA this may aleinate them from the Federation when it is important for their voice to be heard at the Center. There is no mention about a most important aspect, i.e. a run-off election. The French Presidential and Parliamentary elections have recently shown that this is the essence of real democracy. Every man (or woman) must be elected to a seat of power with absolute majority of votes cast in that constituency. Without the necessary 50% in the first round, a second round between the first two candidates is necessary to confirm the democratic credentials of the winner. This aspect must be a part of the next batch of NRB proposals to be put before the public.
In the light of dismissal of both our elected PMs twice, amendments to article 58 of the Constitution (Dissolution of the NA) have been proposed. There is controversy here, despite the repeated assurances of Gen Pervez Musharraf that he wants actual power to be with the PM, the way the amendments have been worded make the PM a weakling at the total mercy of the President. Given our “democratic” experience this may not be a bad thing but neither is the thought of an all-powerful President having the potential to blackmail the PM at the slightest pretext. Pervez Musharraf cannot guarantee that his successor will be like him. Checks and balances must be institutional rather than personality-based. The requirement for an all-powerful non-party President in our circumstances must be fulfilled by a direct mandate from the people i.e. he should be directly elected. Since special circumstances govern the Pervez Musharraf’s Presidency, this rule should be enforced in the future, starting with if he wants a second term. The mandate of dismissing a PM cannot be the prerogative of an indirectly elected President. The National Security Council (NSC) must have a full fledged paramount Secretariat, the Foreign Minister must be part of the NSC as must be a full time paid National Security Advisor directly in charge of the NSC Secretariat. A majority vote of the NSC should recommend the dismissal of a PM, thereafter a mechanics that cannot be manipulated by arbitrary powers needs to be worked out. Presently the weightage is inclined too heavily in the President’s favour.
The balance between the President and the PM has to be fine-tuned to prevent either the President or the PM from having virtual dictatorial powers. The process of dismissal/removal of the PM (or for that matter the President) has to be unambiguous and transparent. The NAs or PAs should not be at the mercy of peremptory dismissal. This calls for healthy debate, not outright rejection as has been hastily done by some political entities. We have to return to a fair democratic system in which the collective peoples’ will, rather than that of an individual, is all-powerful.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).