September 12, 2008
By the time this is published, Asif Ali Zardari will likely have been elected President of Pakistan. Back in 1997 he had been tossed into jail by Nawaz Sharif, and stayed there for several years till Musharraf released him. His relationship with Benazir Bhutto was widely reputed to be minimal at best, as the two lived essentially separate lives in exile. However, when the political situation changed and Benazir was able to come back, Zardari was able to ride along and got a Presidential pardon for all prior crimes from Musharraf as part of the NRO that dismissed most of the senior judges in November 2007.
When Benazir was killed, the dynastic politics of Pakistan and the PPP led to Zardari essentially inheriting the country’s largest political party. After winning the election, the PPP cobbled together a national unity government with the PML-N, a coalition that eventually forced the resignation of President Musharraf.
But at this point the two sides split. Nawaz Sharif was demanding the full restoration of the old judges, an act that would likely result in a voiding of the NRO of Musharraf and hence a return of the legal cases against Zardari. Meanwhile, Sharif was hoping that his longstanding support of the deposed Chief Justice would lead the judge to dismiss the cases against Sharif and reinstate his ability to participate in Parliament, thereby returning him to the Prime Minister’s office.
The PPP was willing to restore the judges, but not in the way Sharif wanted. Instead it would be through a mechanism that would keep the NRO pardons intact. As Sharif declined this, Zardari decided to ignore Sharif and go for the power of the Presidency directly. With the support of some of the smaller parties, he had enough votes to become President.
The question now is: is this the democracy that everyone was hoping for? What is so democratic about a President with vast powers, including the ability to dissolve Parliament, dismiss the Prime Minister, select the military service chiefs, and also be commander in chief? Shouldn’t these powers belong to the Prime Minister?
This is the heart of the serious constitutional issue that Pakistan must address to become a real democracy. The relationship of the Presidency to the elected Parliament is far too ambiguous and anti-democratic as currently enshrined. If the President is to continue to be elected by the Parliament and provincial assemblies, then it really should only be a ceremonial post. This means that Pakistan must amend its constitution to remove the significant powers that are currently with the President.
It is possible for Pakistan to have a powerful and democratic President, but that would require a direct national vote for the office. That would also require a constitutional amendment.
Earlier this summer, the PPP and PMLN both agreed that the President had far too much power, and wanted to amend the constitution to limit these powers. At the time, the two sides agreed that they would elect a non-partisan figure to fill the reduced post. Now that Zardari is President, will he really have any interest in limiting his extensive powers? And what does this mean for the evolution of real democracy in Pakistan?