Constitutionally, Pakistan is a federal state, but its political culture is more akin to a unitary state. This paradox between the political system and political culture is flaring a rift between the government and opposition parties in the country. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led coalition expressed its dissatisfaction and gave the impression to revamp the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, but opposition parties have expressed their resolve to ensure the continuity of the amendment.
In 2010, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government, with the support of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, passed the 18th amendment, mainly aimed at granting autonomy to the provinces and reviving the parliamentary form of government enshrined in the original 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.
It struck down the 17th Amendment imposed by General Musharraf, and Article 58(2)(b) introduced by General Zia. It devolved 18 federal ministries to provinces, and added nearly 102 changes in the Constitution, with a consensus of all 17 parliamentary parties in the National Assembly.
From the beginning, Khan’s cabinet members from Sindh province have been struggling to influence the provincial administrative system, which is the domain of the Chief Minister. Presently, they are disturbed by the autonomous decision-making of the Sindh government on various subjects, especially on the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
PTI stalwarts have said the 18th amendment weakens the government at the center, without paying attention to the spirit of the federal system, in which the autonomy of the federating units is safeguarded. Consequently, there is a tug of war between federal and provincial governments on various subjects, including the handling of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Indeed, the amendment is a blessing for the current PPP government in Sindh because it warrants high financial and legislative autonomy to it, and frustrates the PTI government at the center. Recently, therefore, the federal planning minister described it as a flawed amendment instead of admitting the center’s own failures to collect and broaden the tax base, and cut expenditures.
The untimely expression of dissatisfaction and criticism of the amendment by the ruling party seems an unwise political move. In the middle of the pandemic, the government needs harmonious working relations with its opposition parties within a parliament and opposing parties’ governments in the provinces, especially the PPP government in Sindh.
The restarting of a discussion on the amendment underscores that it is a tactic of the PTI government to distract public attention from its financial and governance issues. PTI lacks a two-third majority in the Parliament to make an amendment in the Constitution to repeal or at least to make any changes in the amendment. Hence, the Khan government cannot undo the amendment with its fragile simple majority in the National Assembly and Senate.
The ruling political elite has always rhetorically advocated preserving the federal system, but practically it has failed miserably. This dichotomy exposes serious lacunas in constitutionalism, political-cultural, and above all, political leaderships’ behavior in the polity of Pakistan.
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Historically, politically elected federal governments in the center, by default, and military dictators by design, tried to consolidate authority in the center. They resisted the devolution of power that is imperative for provincial autonomy. Even the elected ruling elite committed unconstitutional acts to consolidate power at the center, which encouraged separatist movements at the peripheries of Pakistan.
During military regimes, the centralization of power is understandable due to the institutional, organizational behavior and structure which is grounded on the model of vertical hierarchy. Therefore, it’s natural that military dictators govern the state as a unitary political entity and only permit the functioning of local democracies. They encouraged a controlled democratic system at the local level and discouraged similar arrangements in the provincial and national systems.
But the political leadership during the movements for the restoration of democracy throughout the four military regimes in the country and general election campaigns cherished and promised to preserve the federal norms in the polity of Pakistan. Ironically, once in power, the political elite distanced itself from its promises.
The elected chief executives felt inclined to govern the state like tyrants, which mirrored their political grooming in the subjective-cum-parochial political culture and endorsed the argument that Pakistani political parties preserve the dynastic traits and cults within their rank and file. These peculiarities have been flashing in the current political discourse over the 18th amendment in the country.
Admittedly, there is a need for provinces’ capacity building and revisiting a few clauses of the amendment to remove discrepancies. However, the untimely and very public debate between cabinet members and opposition leaders on the 18th amendment is doing nothing but exposing the naivety of the political elite.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also an advisor on Non-Proliferation to SASSI, London and a course coordinator at Foreign Services Academy for the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece first published in Arab News Pakistan Edition. It has been republished with permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.