2012: the year when big things are supposed to happen in the political landscape of Pakistan. All parties bar the Pakistan Peoples Party have made some reference to elections; the Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamaat-e-Islami are the ones with the loudest clamour for mid-term polls. But with a political president at the helm, mid-term polls are a definite no-no for the PPP. But should President Asif Ali Zardari ask Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to seek a vote of confidence?
Back in college, a respected professor and now also an eminent columnist, had argued in class that the Thirteenth Amendment, the one brought about by Nawaz Sharif in 1997 and which took away the president’s powers to dissolve the National Assembly, had taken Pakistan’s democracy back a few years. His argument, at the time, was that democracy in Pakistan needed a system of checks and balances between the troika. Were these systems removed, the probability of a military takeover was higher. In theory, Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution would serve as more than a deterrent against bad governance; even in its employment, there was a mechanism in place for judicial recourse as well as the ultimate measure of public support: elections.
Purely from an academic standpoint, the argument was interesting: not only had successive governments been dismissed, on corruption charges, but we were then living in times when General Pervez Musharraf had swatted Sharif away and made promises of better democracy. Article 58(2)(b) had been removed by the democrats, and democracy had fallen. By 2003, the president’s powers to dismiss a parliament returned through the Seventeenth Amendment, with General Musharraf also receiving direct or tacit support from parties seemingly opposed to him.
Of course, times have changed. The Eighteenth Amendment came, and sought to wash away the ills of the Seventeenth Amendment. The president could now only remove the government if advised by the prime minister to do so, or if he was “satisfied that the Prime Minister does not command the confidence of the majority of the members of the National Assembly”.
There was consensus on almost everything from all political stakeholders inside the Assembly; the only contentious part was the person of the President, that notorious Asif Ali Zardari, who had somehow swapped jail for the Presidency. This despite Justice Wajeehuddin Ahmed, a star within the judicial fraternity, also being a nominee for President. Most of the opposition to Zardari has been and remains from outside the assemblies, from those who had decided that the government had gone corrupt the moment Zardari became President.
This opposition’s desire for a “non-political” president was seemingly an extension of the principle applied to Musharraf: that the president must not hold any “office of profit.” In Musharraf’s case, his desire for dual office was the issue; in Zardari’s, the issue was his desire to be simultaneously party chairman and hence, a partisan president. Only that Article 43 (1), which defines the president’s person, does not depoliticise the post.
The principle at stake is not mid-term elections or a vote of confidence. It is over whether the “office of profit” should include a party chairperson or any other political office for that matter. Critics will point to Zardari, and claim that the PPP could rule as long as it did despite not enjoying mass support because their party chairman is the head of state. This relationship, it could be argued, makes presidential inaction a logical outcome and gives a government license for incompetence and corruption.
For the PPP, though, neither mid-term elections nor a vote of confidence seems to be necessity. Had Justice Wajeehuddin Ahmed, very much a political person now, been elected president, he would have heeded to the calls of the massive public gatherings and street protests to ask the prime minister to take a vote of confidence. But were the PTI in government, would Justice Saheb have done the same thing? Surely not, this would have spelt political suicide for the party and definitely converted him into a Ghulam Ishaq or Farooq Leghari.
For any party that comes to power, Zardari has shown that a political president is of critical importance in perpetuating the rule of his party’s government, and warding off real and manufactured attacks against them. As things stand, the president has the only means to change government, and that too, if he so wishes to. If this is considered a wrong by the elected members of a parliament, a two-thirds majority is needed to change the law. But the dissenters must wait their turn.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist. Connect with him on Twitter @ASYusuf