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Citizen Voices Democracy Politics

Presidential System in Pakistan: A Comparison With Turkey

Anish Mishra compares Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary democracy to an executive Presidency with the ongoing debate about a similar system in Pakistan. Turkey’s transformation gave rise to an authoritarian culture, which is not something to aspire to. A country like Pakistan that has a tainted political history of elected government repeatedly deposed by military intervention cannot afford to make sudden changes to its structure of government.

In recent months, there has been an ongoing passionate public debate in Pakistan on switching to the model of an executive Presidency i.e. a system of government whereby the President is both the head of state and government. The origins of the spark that ignited this debate and the intentions of its proponents remain unknown. However, without doubt such discourse about systems of governance from time to time should always be encouraged as a healthy practice in a Zinda quom (living nation) like Pakistan as the national poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal said “Nishan Yehi Hai Zamane Mein Zinda Qoumon Ka, Ke Subha-O-Sham Badalti Hain In Ki Taqdeerain(It is the sign of living nations that day and night their destines change).  

If one takes a close look at the technicalities of this proposed form of state structure and constitutional setup then the case study of Turkey makes it worthy of comparison given that Turkey has made the transition from a parliamentary republic to an executive presidency.

Besides the fact that both Turkey and Pakistan are Muslim-majority democracies and brotherly republics, there are many more similarities between Turkey and Pakistan. These two countries have each experienced multiple direct military coup d’états.

In Pakistan the first military coup was by Ayub Khan in 1958, followed by Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and the last coup was led by Pervez Musharraf in 1999, while military coup d’états in Turkey have taken place in 1960, and 1980. The Turkish republic also went through an indirect military intervention in 1971 and 1997. The latter is sometimes termed by scholars as a postmodern coup.

This was when the then Turkish Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan of the Islamist Welfare Party was coerced by the secular-Kemalist oriented Turkish army to impose several harsh measures curtailing the rising level of religiosity in Turkish society such as imposing a compulsory eight-year education program prohibiting the enrollment of students in Islamic madrassas (religious seminaries) and an absolute ban on the use of the traditional headscarf for women in universities.

More recently, one would recall the 15 July 2016 attempted military coup d’état in Turkey that was foiled with mass public support for the civilian government. Unlike, Pakistan where military coups are bloodless, the botched military takeover in Turkey claimed over 300 human lives.

This shows that the Turkish people are even willing to lay down their lives for the sake of its civilian leadership in contrast to Pakistan where military tanks have been welcomed with flower petals.

It is important to observe the transformation of Turkey’s structure of government following the resisted coup. In order to consolidate power and recover from the military action, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency that lasted two years.

During the period of emergency rule, a referendum was held on 16 April 2017 to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with an executive Presidency, thus abolishing the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office.

This proposed new system of government caused much controversy in Turkey and divided popular opinion as reflected in the referendum results; participated by over 85 percent of the Turkish electorate, 51 percent voted in favour of the referendum while the other 49 percent were against the constitutional amendment.

The referendum also gave further powers to the President especially in matters of judicial appointments and military affairs. It also increased the size of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey from 550 to 600 seats. This new system of government was supposed to be kicked into effect in November 2019 when presidential and parliamentary elections would be held simultaneously. However, elections were announced earlier than due on 24 June 2018. The incumbent President Erdogan won by a narrow majority of 52.59 percent of the popular vote, coming second in place was the opposition candidate Muharrem İnce with 30.64 percent; the other four candidates received the remaining votes. This made Erdogan Turkey’s first executive President and earned Binali Yildirim the badge of the last Prime Minister of Turkey.

It can be claimed that even before the referendum Turkey was a de facto Semi-Presidential republic as President Erdogan was the man-in-charge given that Binali Yildirim was an Erdogan loyalist belonging to the same political party Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP). Yildrim also resigned as the chief of the AKP allowing Erdogan to takeover, he was then made speaker of the Grand National Assembly.

The arguments in favour and against Turkey’s tranformation from the parliamentary system to an executive Presidency bears striking resembalnce to the ongoing discourse in Pakistan. Proponents of the Presidential system espouse the idea that parliamentary democracies in a multi-party system are vulnarable to political instablity caused by the nature of coalition politics.

Moreover, they also belive that the cheif executive of a country will need certain levels of legal impunity and authority commonly accorded to the Head of State to be able to perfom the duty of governance in accordance with an electorial mandate without interfernce from the military-beaucratic-judical oligarchy. Oppopnents of an executive Presidency express concerns over concentrating too much of power in one elected office hence, paving the way for a civilain dictatorial regime.

It must be noted here that Turkey did not make the transition from a parliamentary democracy to an executive Presidency overnight. The parliamentary system had been practiced in Turkey since it became a republic on 29 October 1923.

The Turkish people have been constantly debating over adopting the executive presidency for more than half a century before the landmark refrendum in 2017.

In a milestone step, Turkey opted for a direct elected presidency based on pouplar vote in 2014. Before that,the president of Turkey useed to be appointed by parlaiment.

This shows that Turkey pursued a gradual approch towards the transformation from a parilamentary democracy to an executive presidency. An observation of recent political developments in Turkey makes it evident that it is well headed towards civilian authortarianism. An example of this would include the March 2019 Istanbul Mayoral elections whereby the Turkish Supreme Election Counil annulled the poll which was won by the opposition against the AKP candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Also, the widespread crackdown on dissidents since the Turkish Presidential elections is another sign of brewing civilian authoritarianism in Turkey. It must thus be a genuine fear for the people of Pakistan that such a model could be replicated.

There should never again arise a situation whereby the army would have to intervene to save Pakistan from a civilian dictator as this will be disastrous for the development of democracy in Pakistan.

A country like Pakistan that has a tainted political history of elected government repeatedly deposed by military intervention cannot afford to make sudden changes to its structure of government as this need to be done gradually and systematically with popular national consensus.

A presidential system akin to the United States of America requires a web of independent state institution to function in a democratic fashion. Also, a significantly essential element for democracy to strive in Pakistan is the unity and solidarity between political parties, coalition governments have a positive externality of generating policy that appease larger sections of the population thus promoting the concept of consensus seeking.

In Pakistani history not a single elected government has been collapsed in the National Assembly through a no-confidence motion. Even if the current government in Pakistan were to fall in an unlikely but possible event that coalition partners were to pull the plug on Imran Khan it should not be viewed as a weakening of democracy but rather a feature of the democratic process.

The current decade of the 21st century has witnessed a new reverse wave of democracy. Political Scientist Samuel Huntington wrote about a reverse wave in the 1990s which included Pakistan that regressed from a brief democratic regime to a military dictatorship in 1999 under General Pervez Musharraf. If one observers emerging trends in the state of democracy around the world today then it’s apparent that democracy has been taking a backslide.

A significant difference between the current reverse wave and the 1990s is that at that time it was the states that once had authoritarian regimes which were reverting from democracy.

However, these days it is the more established democracies such as United States, India and The Philippines that have elected popular authoritarian styled leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte. This trend poses challenges for countries similar to Pakistan that have not long ago made the democratic transition and are struggling to uphold the values of democracy.

Another political development that should worry Pakistan is the December 2018 elections in Bangladesh that were heavily rigged resulting in the ruling Awami League-led alliance winning 288 out of 300 seats and 96 percent of the popular vote.

Although Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971, political trend analysis reveals that these two countries still tend to mirror each other.

A major concern that forces of democracy in Pakistan should have is that South Asia is gradually moving towards civilian authoritarianism. If these trends continue then in the long run South Asia would experience a progression from Military dictatorships to democracy and then to civilian authoritarianism.

In order to safeguard democracy, Pakistan’s civil society should remain equally opposed to all form of authoritarianism be it civilian or military otherwise the rise of a civilian autocrat in Pakistan will cause a serve democratic recession in Pakistan that will be harder to shake off then even military dictatorship.

The writer is an expert analyst on Pakistan’s Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy. He is currently a postgraduate student at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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