L’esprit de la nation (“the spirit of the nation”) is how Charles de Gaulle described the office of the president when developing the French constitution.
The head of state represents the national unity and legitimacy of a sovereign state. Depending on the form of government in a particular nation-state, they could also be the chief executive officers.
The United States (US), whose constitution was inspired by Montesquieu’s Theory of Separation of Powers, has separated its executive and legislation and the head of the executive, as the president, also acts as the head of state.
Pakistan’s constitution of 1973, on the other hand, has evolved from the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy. Here, the executive and legislature are not separate. One can be prime minister only if he or she enjoys the support of the majority in the parliament. That is not the case with the US president; in fact, Donald Trump just might lose the majority in the US Congress in the mid-term elections on the 6th of September.
The comparative power of the Pakistani prime minister, however, comes with a caveat. For parliament to be what it is supposed to be, the PM cannot be the head of state. In fact, in parliament, the lady or gentleman can only be primus inter pares (Latin for “first among equals”).
Even the most powerful prime minister, with a constitution-amending two-thirds majority, like Nawaz Sharif, was only the honourable representative from Lahore. Even the relatively misleading title of Leader of the House only means he enjoyed the support of the treasury benches, nothing more than that. Though it has never come down to it, if the prime minister misbehaves, perhaps the speaker could even ask the sergeant-at-arms to physically drag him or her out of the House.
This egalitarian nature is the bedrock of Westminster style of parliamentary democracy.
We need, therefore, to have a separate individual to represent “the unity of the federation” as our constitution refers to him/her. Someone more pristine than the prime minister, with whom other legislators would be trading barbs on the floor of the house and jeering at him or her upon mistakes.
HOW IS THE PRESIDENT ELECTED?
Since the president represents the federation (“wafaq ki alaamat”) the electoral college is all the legislators of all the chambers of the legislation in the country.
The National Assembly, the Senate and all four provincial assemblies constitute the electoral college.
For purposes of parity between the federating units, the smallest of the said units, the Balochistan Assembly, is set as the base of the weighted-votes electoral process. Since there are 65 members in the Balochistan Assembly, the votes of all other assemblies are adjusted accordingly.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly, with its 124 MPAs, yields 0.524 votes per member. Sindh Assembly, with its 168 MPAs, yields 0.387 votes per member and Punjab Assembly, with 371, yields 0.175 votes per member.
The voting process is a secret ballot, much like the election of the speakers of the various assemblies. The reason for maintaining the secrecy of the ballot is symbolic of how the office is meant to be non-partisan.
This symbolism can spill over into real, non-symbolic results; however, not voting as per party lines cannot be considered a defection. And even it was, there is no way to determine who reneged.
Secret ballots can open the doors to all sorts of parliamentary intrigue, and they do. We saw that in the recent election of the Punjab speaker, who got more than the votes that could be explained by the Punjab Assembly’s parliamentary profile.
POWERS OF THE PRESIDENT
As per the infamous article 58 2 (b) of the eighth amendment to the constitution, the president could dissolve the national assemblies if “a situation has arisen in which the government of the federation cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and an appeal to the electorate is necessary”.
The National Assembly has been dissolved a total of four times through the use of this power.
This power was done away by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in his second term as prime minister.
It was reinstated by former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf and was done away with again, by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of Yousaf Raza Gillani.
Bills are passed by the parliament and the latter is described in the constitution as “the National Assembly, the Senate, and the president.” The president has to sign a bill for it to become an Act of Parliament but even the power to delay the passage of a bill has been curtailed after it became a contentious issue between former president Farooq Leghari and former premier Nawaz Sharif.
All executive decisions made by the president are under the binding advice of the prime minister. For instance, the president, in his capacity as the commander in chief of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan shall appoint the respective service chiefs and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee upon the binding advice of the prime minister.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The position doesn’t matter, except for symbolism. But there are differences in types of symbolism.
For the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), one of the weakest federal governments to take over under the 1973 constitution, not being able to elect a president will place it on a perceptual map. Politics is about perceptions. The eventual successful election of Dr Arif Alvi to the post was extremely important to the PTI in this regard.