A debate has started for a few days over introduction of a presidential form of government in the country. Opposition, especially PMLN, has been accusing the ruling party of hatching a conspiracy to sabotage the parliamentary system. What is wrong with parliamentary system by the way? Why it needs to be replaced by a presidential system? If it really needs to be replaced what are the negative features of presidential form of government?
Let’s go through all these questions and try to find answers of each. Parliamentary system refers to the form of government where the executive organ (which formulates policy, implements and enforces the law and runs the administration of executive departments) is responsible for its performance and actions to the legislature or parliament. In this system, the head of the government (who is called prime minister, but not necessarily) is elected from among and by the members of legislature. He is also bound to chose his ministers from among the same lot of people. The prime minister and his ministers enjoy their respective positions as long as the majority in the parliament (lower house only in case of bicameralism) supports them.
They are at risk of being removed from their office if they lose the confidence of such a majority in the parliament. Losing confidence of majority doesn’t necessarily mean that the government’s performance is poor. It simply means that the party in power doesn’t have enough numbers in the house to back it. Here lies the major drawback in this system which makes it vulnerable compared to presidential form of government.
A weak executive of this kind cannot undertake vital developmental and reformist agendas. The risk of breaking away of alliances and own party members renders it helpless with regard to performing some key functions. This phenomenon is commonly known as ‘horse trading’. Another problem with parliamentary form of government, which is especially prevalent in third world democracies, is that the ministers- who mostly comprise academically and professionally poor persons – are tasked with carrying out the administration of vital government departments.
This phenomenon was apparent in the recent cabinet constitution when the ruling party ran short of able MNAs for the ministers’ posts. Subsequently, if able persons are not hired on alternative basis for those departments then such departments become subject to decay and stagnation. This is why our government departments are notorious for their lack of creativity. Furthermore, the minister-who is also MNA- is concerned more about his constituency than his ministry. In order to get elected again he directs his ministry’s resources and influence towards placating his electorate. This phenomenon also hampers his abilities to run the affairs of his ministry in effective way.
Some of the aforementioned drawbacks surrounding the parliamentary system are not intrinsic, they are exogenous. They can be treated if due attention is paid to the people that constitute it. For example the academic and professional bar for entry into politics may be raised to attract more capable people into ministries, or the educational standard of citizens can be raised so that competent persons run for the elections.
But that would take a lot of time, and also such a reformist thinking requires a stable system to materialize into reality, which we argued is not in existence in parliamentary system. So this is just one solution to the plethora of other shortcomings like; what would you do about the dilemma that the minister faces with regard to his ministerial responsibilities and the expectations of his constituency? How do we put breaks on the practice of frequent dismissal of ministries by the parliament and the subsequent disruption in policy making? And the list goes on.
Some thinkers find the presidential form of government as remedy for the ills of parliamentary system of government. Now this discussion relates the second question that we asked earlier. According to the proponents of this system, the presidential system provides for a stable alternative to the vulnerable parliamentary system. Unlike parliamentary system the head of the government in presidential system doesn’t come from the parliament, he is rather elected by the people-directly or indirectly.
His cabinet members, corollary of ministers in parliamentary system, are also not taken from the parliament, and neither they are responsible to it for their performance. They act independently of the parliament. Parliament cannot bring their performance into question and cannot dismiss them from their position. In this sense, these cabinet members enjoy a security of office along with their head i.e. the President. This also results in effective and sustainable policy making.
The system is under no duress regarding the disruption in its functioning. The executive in presidential system have also nothing to worry about their constituencies as they are not elected officials. They pursue the policies of their departments with vigor and confidence. This results into effective administration. US is an example of how this system can effectively supersede all other systems in terms of policy formulation, stability, service delivery, and economic prosperity. However, the presidential system is not free from draw backs.
The critics of this system point out that it provides blanket immunity to executive with regard to its actions. However, this is not true. In US the despotism or authority of President and his cabinet is kept under check by the system of judicial review. The concept of judicial review provides that any policy or action of the executive will be termed null and void if it is not found in conformity with the basic tenets of the constitution. Furthermore, the president is impeached by two third majority of the senate (upper house of US congress) if he is found to be guilty of a gross misconduct-which also includes subversion of the constitution. Lastly, the term of the office of the president in most of the countries subscribing to this system is normally less eg four years in US. Through these systems of check and balance the executive organ of the government works within its own constitutional jurisdiction.
Unluckily in Pakistan the presidential form of government is understood as a synonym of dictatorship and martial rule. This is because our history is rife with instances where a military dictator, in order to give his authority a legal cover and security, resorted to the fabricated version of this system. This resulted in the erosion of public trust in this system. On contrary, the Presidential system is as democratic as parliamentary system is, if it is implemented in true spirit and through constitutional means.
(The writer is Lecturer in Political Science at Govt. College, Booni).