Firing Prime Ministers Harms the Pakistan Constitution

The Pakistan Supreme Court must find a way to restore the dignity of the prime minister as the chief executive of the nation. Firing prime ministers undermines the parliamentary system and strengthens the presidency, an outcome inconsistent with the constitution.
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Disregarding the constitution and parliamentary system, President Zardari, the chairman of Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has reduced the prime minister to a yes-sir (gi-jinab) minion who must seek the president's consent before taking any political, economic, foreign policy, or domestic action. Contrary to the constitution's letter and spirit, President Zardari himself has become the most powerful executive. Important government decisions are made in the presidential palace and not in the prime minister's office. This de facto constitutional subversion has deepened in the last few months as the Pakistan Supreme Court struggles with prime ministers over reopening a money-laundering case against Zardari pending in Swiss courts.

Following the British parliamentary model of government, Pakistan has established a constitutional system under which the prime minister is the head of government whereas the president is the head of state. The president commands very few powers. Even in exercising these few powers, the constitution obligates the president to act upon the advice of the prime minister. By contrast, the prime minister leads the parliament, heads the federal cabinet, and makes policy decisions. The prime minister, and not the president, has the constitutional power to dissolve the National Assembly. The prime minister, and not the president, appoints the Chief of the Army Staff, the most powerful military office. In sum, according to the constitution, the prime minister, and not the president, is "the chief executive of the Federation."

In the past two years, the parliament has made several constitutional amendments to further strengthen the prime minister and weaken the presidency. Yet, President Zardari has monopolized significant de facto power. There are many reasons for this de facto monopoly. Three reasons discussed below are noteworthy. First, Zardari derives his powers from being the owner of the ruling political party. Second, the political culture values the art of cunning that Zardari has mastered. Third, the Pakistan Supreme Court has unwittingly strengthened President Zardari by disqualifying the prime minister.

Party Ownership First, the constitutional framework is undermined when party ownership, and not the constitutional office, determines who would exercise state authority. In Pakistan, the founders own political parties and they consider party ownership as family property. In 1960s, Zulifqar Ali Bhutto founded the PPP and was the party's exclusive owner. His daughter, Benazir Bhutto, inherited the PPP ownership upon the father's execution. Anticipating threats to her life, Benazir Bhutto wrote a will to pass down the PPP ownership to her husband and son. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Zardari and his adolescent son invoked the will to jointly inherit the PPP ownership. (Party ownership as hereditary property is not unique to the PPP. Most political parties turn party ownership into family property.) Zardari simultaneously wears two power-hats, that of the president and that of the PPP owner. The party owner-hat is mightier than the president-hat.

Under the constitution, as noted above, the prime minister is the chief executive. But under the property principle, Zardari as the PPP owner is much more powerful than the prime minister as a PPP worker. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf knows that he is the prime minister not because the ruling party elected him but only because Zardari selected him to be the prime minister. Furthermore, Prime Minister Raja does not belong to a powerful political family to have the confidence to assert powers of the prime minister. Party workers selected as advisers, ministers, and even prime ministers feel gratefully indebted to Zardari, the PPP owner. Under party ownership, the constitutional office has only cosmetic value. The actual power comes from owning a political party and not from occupying a constitutional office.

Art of Cunning Second, Pakistani political circles cherish the art of cunning. Politicians, bureaucrats, media commentators, and even ordinary party workers admire the cunning of party owners, like Zardari, who can play games (woo, fib, reward, punish) to outsmart opponents. A successful party owner is a devious opportunist who can make effective political alliances with other party owners to contest elections, win seats, and share the booty after acquiring power. Politicians spend little time in acquiring expertise in governmental affairs. They spend most of their resources in pleasing the party owners. Solving national problems is rarely a priority of the political culture.

Exercising the art of cunning, President Zardari nominated Raja as the new prime minister not because Raja is the most qualified person for the job but because he is a subservient crony with no personal ego. Before, Raja has been the federal minister responsible for solving the chronic problem of electrical shortage. Raja was a consummate failure. The electrical shortage worsened under his tenure. The office of the prime minister is undermined when the prime minister is blatantly incompetent to solve social and economic problems that Pakistan faces. Zardari picked Raja as a convenient sacrifice if the Pakistan Supreme Court were to fire yet another prime minister for refusing to obey the court order of writing a letter to Swiss authorities to open the money-laundering case against Zardari and others.

Judicial Error Judicial error is also undermining the constitution. The Pakistan Supreme Court demands that the government obey the court order and write a letter to the Swiss authorities. In its laudable pursuit to establish the rule of law, however, the court has been targeting the prime minister, and not the president, even though the money laundering case involves President Zardari and not the prime minister. Ironically, targeting the prime minister has strengthened President Zardari as the party owner who can now pick a dummy to freely exercise powers of the prime minister.

Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani, whom the Supreme Court fired from office for not writing the Swiss letter, though loyal to the PPP, was hardly a Zardari puppet. Gilani belonged to an influential family and had political connections in the parliament to exercise constitutional powers of the prime minister. Zardari respected Gilani and refrained from openly dictating him. The new prime minister has no political respect in the parliament. He has little intellectual ability to effectively exercise the constitutional powers conferred upon him. He is therefore happy to defer the matters to Zardari who can now claim experience in statecraft. The prime minister's unexamined deference to the president, however, undermines the constitution that conceives the prime minister as an independent chief executive.

The Pakistan Supreme Court must find a way to restore the dignity of the prime minister as the chief executive of the nation. Firing prime ministers undermines the parliamentary system and strengthens the presidency, an outcome inconsistent with the constitution. Writing the Swiss letter is much less important than preserving the constitutional office of the prime minister and the concomitant parliamentary system.

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