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Analysis Democracy Governance

Will The Efforts To Rollback The 18th Amendment Succeed?

The financial and constitutional restructuring carried out through the 18th amendment to the constitution during last PPP government are, once again, a subject of debate. Skeptics include sections of the political class, powerful federal bureaucracy and the security establishment.

A report in Daily News suggests that efforts are underway to secure the support of mainstream parties for revising the 18th amendment. The News has reported that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with the help of Pakistan People’s Party has prepared a draft to revise the NAB Ordinance and “shared it with power brokers.” If the draft law comes into effect, it would “undo the conviction of Mian Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz.”

The recent pronouncements of PTI ministers, therefore, calling for reviewing the 18th amendment were not surprising.

During the past five years, the top military leaders have expressed adverse views towards 18th amendment and the last National Finance Commission award that have effectively reduced the capacity of the federal government to meet its financial requirements especially those related to the security forces. More than 57% of federally collected revenues are now transferred to the provinces.

In 2018, Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed his displeasure with the 18th Amendment in the Constitution that, he believed, had turned the country into a confederation. In March 2018, journalist Imtiaz Gul reported the contours of Bajwa doctrine and wrote “the parliament is supposed to revisit laws such as the 1861 Police Act and the 18th Amendment to correct the course of governance and capacity. In this world, everything, except the Holy Quran is open to review as societies evolve and face newer challenges.”

Earlier, a key reason for strained civil-military relations during the last days of PMLN government was the inability of the latter to meet the financial requirements of military. The statements of former finance minister Ishaq Dar have mentioned this area of disagreement.

The shrinking resources of the federal government were also seen as an impediment in financing the security-related expenditures especially when the Pakistani troops undertook operations in the tribal areas to flush out militants in 2014. The operations resulted in large-scale migration of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from tribal areas to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country. The Pakistan Army was the first relief provider to these IDPs and later it played a crucial role in settling the IDP camps scattered across KP. The initial relief for the displaced people was provided from the existing defense budget with little assistance from the federal government.

Later, in 2014, according to various sources, the army made the federal government club together: (i) the expenditure on IDP rehabilitation, (ii) security-related expenditures on military operations in tribal areas, and (iii) the cost of raising additional battalions for providing security to the CPEC. After clubbing them together, a proposal was made that the federal government should demand from the provinces a 7 per cent reduction in the size of the divisible pool, before it was further divided into shares of each province and federal government.

When in December 2016 the then Finance Minister Ishaq Dar proposed that the size of the divisible pool should be cut by 7 per cent to accommodate the growing financial needs of the army, the provinces refused to entertain the request — the strongest opposition voice came from KP government while all four provinces demanded that the expenditure be properly explained. For instance, on the demand for CPEC, provinces asked how much of CPEC was passing through their territory. In short, a new culture of public scrutiny has been evolving with the increased resources and powers of the provinces.

At the time of passage of the 18th Amendment, the federal government had announced a restructuring of the federal bureaucracy with the aim of transferring the functions of 17 federal ministries to the provinces. The government of the day stated that it had finished the job in one year’s period, which was not true. The ministries were never abolished at the federal level. This caused the federal government to continue incurring the cost of retaining these ministries and the bureaucratic structures associated with it.

Experts say the retention of these 17 ministries in Islamabad not only undermined the idea of devolution but placed additional burden on the federal budget. The devolution process, which spanned over a period of one year involved the accommodation of 50,000 staff members and officers of the civil service. Thirty-eight thousand of these civil services officers and members were transferred to different federal ministries.

The federal government incurred an additional amount of Rs 910 billion in two years between 2014-2016, primarily because of managing military operations in North Waziristan Agency and raising CPEC’s 100 battalions. Another security-related expenditure, where the military was had to spend from the existing defense allocation, relates to the IDPs.

Both PPP and PMLN leadership continued to resist the pressure to revise or do away with the 18th amendment and related bureaucratic and financial restructuring. The military top brass remained tight lipped and didn’t express its reservations about the amendment and corresponding restructuring during the five years of PMLN government.

Beyond the public domain, the pressure was always there. Senator Raza Rabbani, one of the architects of the 18th amendment, told this scribe during an interview that there were strong lobbies within PPP and PMLN, which resisted the implementation of the restructuring process in the wake of passage of 18th amendment by the parliament. He said that these lobbies were formed alliances with the section of bureaucratic elite in Islamabad, who were on the losing end because of the restructuring process.

Now, it seems that the civil-military bureaucracy has once again become active against the 18th amendment. The recent statements of PTI ministers reflect the back-channel discussions. The bargains and negotiations over anti-corruption laws are also a step in this direction.

It remains to be seen if the PTI government can steer this process of negotiations given the ruling party’s refusal to work with the opposition. How far will the PPP and PMLN gain and whether they will proceed with the plan? Would the mainstream parties while agreeing to another constitutional amendment lose face and become even more irrelevant?

Suffice it to say, it is not going to be an easy process without a major political shift and consensus-building.

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Naya Daur