Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy modelled on the UK, its former colonial ruler, with a ceremonial head of state and an all-powerful parliament. But this arrangement is not serving the country well at the moment.
Like in the UK, the institutional inertia of the parliamentary system ensures that power is retained by the political insiders of the major parties. In some context, this is a good thing. For example, in the UK, this system has enabled a smooth transition of power after the Brexit vote from the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to his successor, Theresa May.
At a time of great political upheaval, this system allowed for a swift change of leadership toward someone who is regarded as competent and “a safe pair of hands”, someone who is generally trusted to be boring but effective, and someone who would not have otherwise been likely to win the leadership. And so, the country can now focus its attention on the actual Brexit negotiations, which will determine its future for decades.
But the same institutional inertia which keeps power solidly confined to just top political operators is much less positive if those at the top of political parties who control the government and most areas of the state are chronically corrupt. The parliamentary system has given Pakistan a good deal of political stability, after so many decades of on-again-off-again military takeovers.
The parliamentary system has given Pakistan a good deal of political stability, after so many decades of on-again-off-again military takeoversDr. Azeem Ibrahim
But this stability has also come at the price of putting most of those at the top of the political class beyond effective accountability. This system has made it more difficult for the military to remove the civilian government from power, but it has made it even more difficult for the people to challenge and hold to account the incumbent government.
If new political movements or parties want to enter the fray and offer an alternative vision and direction for the country, they have decades of work ahead of them – just as in the UK, it has taken the Labour party a great deal of luck and over two decades from being established out of the broad Labour movement into a party with actual impact in the British Parliament.
Time running out?
Pakistan cannot wait for that long. It is plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and even just plain administrative incompetence at all levels. Yet given the inherent stability of the parliamentary system, there is very little pressure for those at the top to improve their performance. And there is little chance that they will be effectively replaced.
With each new party having to field hundreds upon hundreds of candidates to contest seats in every constituency under the Parliamentary system, successive generations of politicians will not be drawn from the most able and talented, but from those with insider connections, and family ties – mirroring the deep problem with nepotism of the country at large.
In these circumstances, there is a strong argument for shaking things up. The performance of the top leaders will only improve if the people can hold them to account – i.e. if they can get rid of their leaders when they under-perform, or when they are proven to be corrupt.
In other words, there is an argument that the country should shift towards the more directly accountable Presidential system of democracy, where the head of the Executive branch of the state, the government, is directly answerable to the democratic public at fixed intervals of time, such as four or five years.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. And there is also a question of the quality of the democratic public who does the holding to account. The Presidential system has allowed for the likes of Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France to pose a realistic chance to take over the reins of power in their countries.
With the power to elect their leader directly, the public will not necessarily elect the most able leader, or the one who is best for their country. They may also elect leaders who are just better liked, look better on television, or who are the most successful at whipping up anger or fear of real or imagined threats to the nation.
These are real concerns and should not be taken lightly. But with each passing year, the virtually guaranteed mismanagement of the country by Pakistan’s sclerotic political elite, makes the alternative worth considering more and more, despite the inherent risks.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim