Pakistan’s Flawed Presidency


Pakistan has been unsuccessful in designing a stable presidency. Two competing models vie for approval. Pakistan’s formulaic constitution, borrowed from the legal-political traditions of England and India, establishes a ceremonial presidency subordinated to parliament. The president with few powers is the head of state and represents the unity of the Republic. The ceremonial presidency empowers elected assemblies to run affairs of the state and provinces in accordance with the wishes of the people. It also spawns political cronyism, allowing politicians to freely broker power relations, distribute ministries and governmental offices on the basis of connection rather than competence and, for the worse, use state resources to advance personal and family interests.

The competing model, which Pakistan’s generals as well as American policymakers prefer, institutes a strong presidency – a praetorian presidency – that listens to the armed forces and kow-tows to American interests. Under the praetorian model, the President exercises formidable powers, appoints heads of the armed forces, and can dissolve dysfunctional or discordant elected assemblies. Even the judiciary is made subservient to the President. The praetorian presidency empowers what Pakistanis call the establishment—a congregation of bureaucrats, army generals, advisers, and experts. The praetorian presidency focuses on economy and foreign relations. But it alienates political forces and weakens elected assemblies. Consequently, corruption permeates the state machinery with little or no accountability.

The nomination of Asif Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to contest the presidential election is a disturbing development. If elected, President Zardari would further muddle the models of presidency. Zardari might not use the iron hand of praetorian presidency, as did General Pervez Musharraf, to please the establishment and foreign masters. Under no circumstance, however, will Zardari be the ceremonial president.

Ceremonial Presidency

The ceremonial presidency works best when the president is a non-political, consensus figure enjoying the trust of major political parties. Ideally, the ceremonial president is a person of great stature, unimpeachable character, and favorable reputation. The ceremonial president must not be the head of any political party, nor must the ceremonial president be ideologically inclined toward a certain foreign policy, domestic agenda, or political set up. This apparent neutrality of the ceremonial presidency generates confidence among political forces that the state is open to political diversity and pluralism.

Zardari does not qualify to be a ceremonial president. Though many criminal cases filed against Zardari were fabricated, his reputation is sullied with charges of corruption. His recent conduct to make and break political accords regarding the restoration of judges also leaves the impression that Zardari equates the art of politics with amoral cunningness rather than tough bargaining over controversial issues.

Furthermore, Zardari is politically too powerful to be a ceremonial president. He is the co-chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party in power. The other chairman is Zardari’s own son. This family hold on the rank and file of the PPP will continue to exist even if Zardari resigns from co-chairmanship. Furthermore, the Prime Minister, a member of the PPP, is unlikely to challenge President Zardari on the theory that the Prime Minster has the constitutional powers to run the country. For all practical purposes, therefore, Zardari will run the country as the top man even if the praetorian presidency is constitutionally dismantled.

Praetorian Presidency

In opposing Musharraf, the PPP was planning to introduce a complex constitutional package in the parliament to cut down powers of the praetorian presidency. Almost all political parties favor restoring the constitution to its formulaic format. This political consensus will now fall apart. If Zardari is elected to be the president, the PPP would most likely withdraw the constitutional package. The constitution, as it stands, confers huge powers on the president. Zardari would want to retain these powers in case the political tide turns against him or the PPP.

Even the United States would prefer that the constitution remains as is, and that the praetorian presidency is not weakened. It is easier for the U.S. to deal with one strong man at the top than with an elected parliament accountable to the people. The U.S. can fight the war in Afghanistan more effectively if Pakistan furnishes its intelligence and armed resources to defeat the Taliban and foreign fighters. Pakistan’s praetorian presidency can deliver these resources to satisfy U.S. interests in the region, including the pressure on Iran. Zardari, a powerful man who cannot overcome the reputation of being a crook, is a godsend for the U.S. In the past, the U.S. has deftly exploited praetorian characters, such as Manual Noriega, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, and Pervez Musharraf, for its global interests.

Pakistan under Zardari

Regardless of whether the constitution is restored to ceremonial presidency, Pakistan is in for a rough ride under Zardari. Now that the coalition has split, Zardari’s personal character will be politicized, highlighting his past criminal record. A sullied civilian president will diminish the nation’s confidence in political rule. The insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas will intensify their battle against the government, increasing suicide bombings. The war in Afghanistan will spill over the border into Pakistan, as the U.S. daringly strikes the terrorist infrastructure on both sides of the border. Engaged in inter-personal politics, the government will have little time to solve the nation’s basic problems, including shortages of electricity, fuel, and clean water.

Ali Khan is professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, and the author of the book, A Theory of Universal Democracy (2003).

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