How The Office Of Prime Minister Became An Empty Shell
A country which is still facing two insurgencies – one in the north west, which is partially subdued and the other in the south west, which is still in full swing – against the centralized executive authority need not be reminded of the importance and significance of the existence of powerful and effective central executive authority. Such an executive authority can act as a bulwark against forces of anarchy and chaos. Any country with a less dysfunctional political system than Pakistan would have realized the importance of strong and effective authority after passing through such an ordeal. Any country which has lost one of its wings to revolt and insurgency against centralized executive authority would have cared a lot about preserving such authority in the future.
But not Pakistan: its political history narrates a totally opposite story. Under the country’s constitutional setup, the Prime Minister of Pakistan is the chief executive of the country. The powers of running the country—administrative, economic, socia and political—completely lie in their hands. The country’s military, intelligence and foreign policy establishments have to take orders from them for the running of their operations. The PM has to take decisions about the distribution of economic and financial resources in the society. As such, a PM is answerable only to the elected parliament.
Under the constitution there is only one way that a PM could be removed from office: i.e. a majority of the members of the National Assembly express a vote of no confidence against the incumbent Prime Minister. Under completely different circumstances a PM could also resign from office, but not under any kind of duress. Under constitutional provisions a PM could decide in their own wisdom—after considering the political situation prevailing in the country – that fresh elections have to be called and in such a situation they dissolve the National Assembly at their discretion, and not under any kind of duress.
And yet look what we have done to the office of Prime Minister over the course of the last 70 years. We hanged one prime minister in 1979. We jailed another in 2018. Both convictions have been called into severe doubt. The latter is now fighting for his life in hospital.
On a totally parallel track, the post-1971 political history saw the emergence of a parallel executive authority in the form of the Chief of the Army staff. And the magicians of the Pakistani state created an aura of invincibility and permanence around the office of COAS, when they were allowed to serve for decades during military rules and for six years—one year more than the tenure of elected government or Prime Minister, who is elected for five years—during civilian rule. If we take a long view of Pakistan’s political history, some of the prime ministers in Pakistan served only for few months. But no Army Chief served for less than three years.
Other prime ministers were sent home by generals directly or by Presidents backed by the military. Prime Ministers were subjected to humiliating accountability process and those who supervised the accountability process were either from non-representative institutions or those acing as front men of non-representative institutions. In such a situation complaining about weakening executive authority or weakening writ of the state is naivete of an extreme nature. When you strike at the very foundation of executive authority in the country, that is the office of prime minister, or humiliate the person holding this office, you can’t complain about the eroding executive authority or the writ of the state.
In the original 1973 constitution, those who framed the document clearly wanted that the prime minister of the country should function in an atmosphere free of very type of duress. The pressure on a PM should simply come from the elected representatives in the parliament and no one else. The framers wanted that no administrative, military or judicial authority in the country should have the power to remove the prime minister from office. That is why they created only two provisions for the removal of a prime minister from office—one is through a PM’s own decision to dissolve the national assembly and the other is through a no-confidence move by the majority of the national assembly members.
In my opinion those who invented the mechanism of ousting the Prime Minister by unseating him/her as a member of the national assembly in fact dynamited the very foundation of Pakistan’s political system and further weakened the executive authority of the state—at a time when country is a chaotic security situation.
Two Prime Ministers—Yousaf Raza Gilani and Nawaz Sharif—were removed from office through a court order that primarily unseated them as members of the national assembly. This situation violated the original intentions of the framers of the 1973 constitution, which clearly laid down the two possible ways through which a prime minister could be removed.
This also happened to be a time when the office of Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) was fast emerging as a parallel executive authority in the country. The military leadership was taking decisions about force application to curb militancy and the policy of initiating negotiations with the militant groups, acting as diplomats-in-chief of the country in meetings of important heads of the states, etc. They even started to take interest in economic and financial management of the country.
So the weakening of the executive authority of the state was caused by the separate but parallel processes of the judiciary inventing a new mechanism for the removal of a Prime Minister from office and the office of Army Chief taking up powers once considered the preserve of the Prime Minister.
Pakistan’s political class through their sheer ingenuity have invented yet another way to humiliate the office of Prime Minister—this has been done twice since August 2014 when various political players gathered a few thousand protesters in Islamabad and started talking about a mob arresting the prime minister, or forcing him to resign. Another way to make a mockery of the political system is when (technically) subordinate executive authorities invite the leaders of the protesters to visit them in their office – even when they were hurling humiliations on the chief executive at the top of their lungs.
The Prime Minister’s office now exists as an empty shell in Pakistan’s political system especially after receiving continuous battering by subordinate executive authorities and machinations of unaccountable power centres. Its capacity to make things happen in society is much less than its subordinate institutions and executive authorities, which were on a persistent drive of power aggrandizement since the post-Zia period.
But the dreadful possibility of a mob forcing the Prime Minister to resign under duress is too frightening to even contemplate. This could be a fatal blow to the political system and would thus increase the capacity of forces of chaos to spread their tentacles in society. It seems that those wielding power in the Pakistan and political class of the country can sleepwalk us into disaster.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.