The debate on changing the existing parliamentary system in Pakistan by a presidential system keeps popping up now and then and fizzles out like a storm in a teacup. Nowadays, it is in the air again. The proposal is based on the assumption that a strong president will bring stability in the political system and clean it from corruption. Our history has proved the fallibility of this hypothesis time and again, however it always finds some proponents. We had tried both, the parliamentary system as well as the presidential system; however, we failed to run either of them smoothly.

The countries with democratic systems of government made their choice of parliamentary or presidential system based on their history, culture and aspirations of the people. Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc. chose parliamentary democracy; whereas the USA, France and Germany etc. adopted presidential systems. All these countries are running their national and international affairs smoothly and providing a life of peace, prosperity, and justice to their citizens for more than two centuries. During these two hundred years of established democratic governments, none of these nations ever thought of replacing their system by another system. There were instances in history when their systems faced problems. But these nations resolved the situation by wisdom and statesmanship, political skills, public debates, parliamentary resolutions, and constitutional measures; not by replacing the system. If ever anything changed to resolve the problem, it was the “person” not the system. When needed, the “person” was removed from office, the system was kept intact. The “vital force” behind successful working of political system of a nation is its national character and integrity and democratic spirit of its leaders. 

Founding fathers of Pakistan were educated and trained in the political environments of British parliamentary system and they envisaged it for Pakistan. However, the vanguard of Pakistan movement left this world within a few years of creation of the new state, when the process of formation of the system for the new state was still in the melting pot and had yet to evolve. A non-elected and despotic Governor General took over the country and dismissed the elected Constituent Assembly. Sadly enough, the judiciary supported his action. For the next five years, the country was under a strong governor rule and a weak parliament. These years of our history were years of political chaos due to a power hungry governor general’s strong grip over the power and lack of unity and discipline among the politicians. However, the constituent assembly was, at last, able to frame the first democratic constitution of Pakistan, the “1956 Constitution” with parliamentary form of government. Under this constitution, elections for national and provincial assemblies were to be held in early 1959. That would have been the beginning of the journey of true democracy in Pakistan. However, on 28 October 1958, martial law was imposed, and this foray over the new constitution at the dawn of democracy nipped the parliamentary system and the democracy in the bud. Parliamentary system was declared a “failure” even before it could work in its true form. The country remained under the military rule of General Ayub Khan for 10 and half years (October 1958 – March 1969). Ayub Khan promulgated his own constitution of 1962 with presidential system and assumed the position of President of Pakistan. He formed his political party from among the feudal lords, industrialists, and capitalists, who all had their own vested interests. The party did not have roots in the masses, and Ayub Khan had to rule with an iron hand. Fundamental rights remained suspended, about 303 senior bureaucrats, who insisted on running the government according to rule of business, were sacked. Senior politicians, including many who were part of the Pakistan movement, were either jailed or were disqualified from participating in politics. Press freedom was curbed. Voice of the public, intelligentsia, writers and poets, was suppressed. In the initial years of Ayub government, the country showed good economic progress. But the benefits of this progress did not reach down to masses. Poor got poorer and remained deprived of very basic facilities of life. With time, Ayub Khan became unpopular among the public, particularly in East Pakistan. After the 1965 war the pace of economic progress could not be maintained and the government ran into a serious crisis of balance of payment. Prices of sugar and other commodities were rising beyond common man’s budget. Masses were struggling to make the ends meet. Ultimately, a popular surge swept away Ayub Khan’s government, ironically at a time when he was celebrating 10 years of his rule as “Decade of Development” and the government-controlled radio and television were chanting the official chorus: Rahbar-e-mohtaram hum teray sath hain.

Was it a failure of the presidential system or of Ayub Khan and his team? A team of sincere, honest, and competent persons, acting according to the law and constitution, respecting democratic rights and following democratic norms, and connected with masses at grassroots level, would have done some good for the country even under this ‘not so democratic’ presidential system of 1962 constitution. But they failed because the “vital force” of integrity of the leaders and the national character was missing. Departure of General Ayub leading to the elections of December 1970 gave hope to the nation for a better future. Mr. Bhutto emerged as a stalwart of democracy from this election. However, contrary to democratic norms, he refused to accept the right of the majority party from East Pakistan to form the government and was supported by the generals. As a result, East Pakistan revolted, and then: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again. 

On 14th August 1973, Pakistan got a new constitution with consensus of all political parties and the nation started a new era of parliamentary democracy under the leadership of Mr. Bhutto. However, democratically elected Mr. Bhutto ruled the country as a dictator. He nationalised industries, banks and corporate businesses right on the day one of assuming power, without due study, planning and a realistic work plan. This sudden and drastic action crippled the economy. Political opponents, journalists, even his own party men who dared to disagree with him, were put behind bars. On completion of the first term of his government, new elections were held. Opposition parties blamed that elections were rigged and launched a mass movement demanding fresh elections. Mr. Bhutto and opposition politicians failed to reach a solution. The country came to a halt due to massive public agitation. As a result, the military intervened and took over the government, and Mr. Bhutto was executed. Once again, we lost the track of democracy. But where lies the fault? Was it because of any flaw in the system, or because we did not follow the system! 

For the next 11 years, General Zia ul Haq did all he could do to depoliticise the society and make the country an authoritarian religious state. General Zia died in a plane crash. After the tragic death of General Zia, general elections were held in 1988 in which the nation rejected his model of government and elected Ms. Benazir Bhutto – the person whom General Zia tried to keep out of power for 11 years. The forces who were running the country after General Zia, were not happy with Ms. Benazir becoming the prime minister. Opposition parties used the opportunity to destabilise her government and her own mistakes provided President Ishaq Khan, General Zia’s successor and his right hand man, the opportunity to use the eight amendment to dismiss her government, when she has been in office only for 20 months. Three successive elected governments were removed in just eight years using the axe of the 8th amendment, and the fourth one was removed at gunpoint by General Musharraf. General Musharraf ran the country for the next eight years, ironically with the help of the groups who were in the past branded as anti-Pakistan and terrorists by his own military establishment. Under pressure from General Musharraf, the parliament passed 17th amendment to the constitution which allowed him to rule the country as a General in uniform, holding the “civilian office” of the president of Pakistan and at the same time holding the office of the Chief of Army Staff. The 17th amendment was the “eighth wonder” in the political history of the world and a shame for the politicians who passed it.  In this “Game of Thrones.”’ the political parties with their hereditary leadership, the judiciary, and other forces that matter, all played a role to manipulate the system, openly violating the law, the constitution, and established democratic norms. Our history of those years is full of corruption, conspiracies, deception, kidnappings, political assassinations, bloodshed, and other horrible crimes. The events of dirty politics of those days are so sensational that Mario Puzo could have written a novel on them, much more sensational than his Godfather.   Our ways of running the country have not changed till this day. People don’t see any improvement in their deteriorating socio-economic conditions. They are frustrated by the present political culture. They are not interested in the seesaw games of changing the system from parliamentary to presidential or presidential to parliamentary, from civilian to military or military to civilian. Disappointment of the masses from the system has created indifference towards national issues. A destructive mass psychology is developing in the society leading to anarchy. People are getting violent. They are losing respect for the law. Incidences of attack on police by the public are happening almost daily. People get hysterical on ordinary accidents or crimes committed by individuals, block highways and damage public and private property. Some neighbourhoods don’t pay electrical bills and when power is disconnected they burn the grid stations. And it is not only the laymen, the educated class publicly demonstrate uncivilised and outrageous behaviour when they lose temper, however, trivial the cause may be. It is time that we realise the gravity of the situation. Playing seesaw with the system will not solve our problems. It will create new and more complex problems. What we need to change is not the system but our behaviour as a nation, starting with the elite.