Parliamentary versus presidential democracy

  • Which way to go?


There’s no dearth of vociferous advocates of either system. One side insists that we can take a giant leap forward by adopting the presidential system, minimising the leverage of self-serving politicians. The other side is equally emphatic that success lies in sticking to the system in place, because it provides the necessary checks and balances on power. The author finds himself unable to share either group’s enthusiasm for he believes that either view is mistaken.

The presidential system prides itself on its inherent separation of powers: the legislative body is distinct from the executive branch. This sounds great until one recalls that the separation of powers was hardly a hallmark of the Ayub, Zia and Musharraf regimes. No doubt, there’s more inertia in the parliamentary system. This can often be a nuisance for a country that needs to be rebuilt almost afresh, albeit with a risk of its plunging to whole new lows in case an especially unhinged man manages to win power. In developed nations, with reasonably working systems in place, probably the parliamentary system is a better bet, since inertia is a much better quality to have than risky enterprise. Now, we certainly belong in the former category, and therefore in theory at least, the presidential system may be better-suited to us. However, again the Zia and Musharraf eras suffice to show the wide gulf between theory and practice. Some presidential democracy advocate may point out that those were not democratic regimes. That’s probably true, but neither were the so-called ‘democratic’ dispensations that we’ve had which were little more than crude forms of majoritarianism.

The great Shafiq-ur-Rahman remarked that we, the people of the Subcontinent, have not only not invented anything of value ourselves, but have made an absolute mess of foreign inventions as well. The parliamentary and the presidential systems, both imports, are no exception

When it comes to the presidential system, some relevant questions are: What is needed to make the switch should it be decided that that’s the way forward? Will an amendment in the Constitution suffice? Or is the basic frame-work of the Constitution unalterable by a constitutional amendment? And what exactly constitutes that basic framework anyway? Do we need a referendum or a fresh general election to elect a constituent assembly?

So much for the modalities, which (if history is any judge) can be taken care of in any number of ways. However, the fundamental question that should precede the above questions is this: what kind of a system do we currently have in place? Because the label aside, it’s not at all easy to claim that we are following parliamentary democracy.

Before going into that, and in the spirit of giving credit where due, there’s one aspect in which the system in place deserves kudos. To its infinite credit, the head of the state and the head of the government are separate in this system. The former (the president) is the symbol of the federation, and one shudders to think of what the federation would do without him. While the president is often decided by the whim of the head of the government (the prime minister) and can’t sneeze without the latter’s approval, the tradition has yielded gems who would have remained obscure otherwise: Presidents Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry, Rafiq Tarar and Mamnoon Hussain, to name three. On this count the nation owes a debt of gratitude to parliamentary democracy.

In a parliamentary democracy, the parliament is supposed to be the great check on the prime minister. In Pakistan, this was undermined after legislation barring members from voting against the party in important matters, making the head of the winning party (who is almost always the prime minister) immune to any challenge from within his own ranks. (This legislation was necessitated by widespread and blatant horse-trading.) Parliament thus being rendered irrelevant, all decisions are taken by the prime minister alone. Again, it looks more and more like the presidential system, despite the customary lip-service paid to Parliament.

It is often assumed that for a federation like ours, with units of widely differing sizes and populations, only the parliamentary system can work because it gives more autonomy to the federating units. This too is an imaginary distinction, because things such as fiscal autonomy and bicameral legislatures can equally be features of a presidential democracy.

In the presidential democracy, the president can appoint anybody he chooses a minister (or secretary of state) to head any department. In the parliamentary democracy on the other hand, there’s supposed to be this tradition of having elected people to head these jobs, even if the technical support comes from specialist bureaucrats. This too is no differentiator in the Islamic Republic, where key portfolios are given to technocrats with impunity, and if needed they are given a Senate seat or made to win from a ‘safe’ constituency (again at the whim of the prime minister). It can be argued that Pakistan has in place an exquisite blend of the worst qualities of both systems. The question to ask is this: can we run any system as it should be run? The author is not very optimistic.

The fault then, instead of lying in this or that system, probably is in our stars. The great Shafiq-ur-Rahman remarked that we, the people of the Subcontinent, have not only not invented anything of value ourselves, but have made an absolute mess of foreign inventions as well. The parliamentary and the presidential systems, both imports, are no exception. After reading a term paper by the student, a professor concluded that it couldn’t have been written by the student alone. His logic was impeccable: it contained far too many mistakes for one man to make. Regardless of the relative merits and demerits of the two systems then, it would be safe to conclude that neither the parliamentary nor the presidential system has a prayer so long as we are the way we are. In that regard, the author will not be crossing his fingers any time soon.