Saturday, 16 December 2017

Designing Democracy and what is the PM term?

With Adnan Rasool 

‘Tenure of the government’ is a term that is being liberally used these days. It is contended that no PM finished his term in Pakistan’s history. An exaggeration. Some resigned, while others were either removed by the President constitutionally (at that time) or more recently by the Supreme Court.

Is the PM term fixed at 5 years in a Parliamentary democracy?

Be that as it may, in most parliamentary democracies, there is no real specified term. UK government that we follow has a 5-year outer limit but a vote of no confidence could undo a government till 2011. In 2011, they enacted a five-year fixed term but even then, May felt that Brexit required her to “refresh her mandate.”

Yet big events in Pakistan like terrorism, dysfunctional parliament, opposition in streets, charges of corruption and mismanagement, nothing forces our politicians to ‘refresh their mandate.’ How odd!

Most parliamentary governments allow for an early exit. Of the 88 governments in UK, only 34 have completed a full 5 years. The average tenure in UK has been about 39 months. Similarly, Japan, also a parliamentary democracy, since 1947 has had PMs with an average tenure of just 3 years. India, that we are all so fond of quoting with envy, has seen 10 PMs who did not finish their term.  No one cried conspiracy in any of these. 

Does Pakistan guarantee 5 years to a PM?

Contrary to loud voices in our media, even our constitution does not say “no government shall be less than 5 years.”  Article 52 states: “The National Assembly shall, unless sooner dissolved, continue for a term of five years.” So, the constitution envisaged that the parliament could be dissolved sooner than 5 years.

Article 95 defines a “vote of no confidence” to dismiss a Prime Minister. But this is no longer possible as the Nawaz Sharif 14th amendment prohibited voting across party lines. It is stunning that our talking heads remained silent on this soft coup that made parliament virtually unnecessary?

Clearly, no fixed term was promised to the PM. It was expected that the PM would carry the parliament; if not, face a vote of no confidence or even resign to ‘refresh the mandate.’ But courtesy of the 14th amendment, removal is nearly impossible. And needless to say these politicians are hungry for power and have no sense of honor. 

If this what the constitution states and limits, then why is 5 years so sacrosanct in our political mindset? PMs and parliaments appear to be dysfunctional in 2-3 years. Calls for ending an elected government start getting louder well before midterm. People are frustrated at a system that only includes them twice a decade. Why not shorten the term of the parliament to say 3-4 years? It might strengthen governments and parliaments rather than weaken them. 

Democracy requires shorter terms, local governments and more elections?
Without local governments, democracy is incomplete. Leaders appear distant and unaccountable without local governments.  Should we accept democrats who refuse to give us local governments?

Like other countries we need a system where elections are frequent and power is more equitably distributed instead of being concentrated in PM and CM. Shorter terms spread out across the levels of government (local, state, federal, school boards, police commissioners etc.) tend to make people trust the system more.

Why for example, can we not hold local and provincial elections every 3 years, national every 4 years in staggered fashion to have a chance for public accountability through ballots every year? Consider this notion and debate it – you will see the advantages of such accountability being built in to the system.

And term limits without dynasties

Why do we allow dynasties to dominate parliament? Ali Cheema et al. of LUMS have shown how dynasties dominate parliament historically. In England, safe seats were called ‘rotten boroughs’ and they brought in reform to end them. Why are we not thinking along those lines?

One important way that more competition is brought into the system is to bring in term limits. We did have them but our politicians who do not want local government, police or administrative reform or regulatory reform took the first opportunity to eliminate them. Is that democracy?

A vast majority of countries in the world have serious term limits on one or more executive and elected positions. Pakistan has a limit of 2 terms on a meaningless ceremonial position—the president. Let us just eliminate a purely ceremonial president who is only a fiscal drain.

We need straightforward laws that ensure that no person holds high public office like PM, Minister or even membership of parliament for more than a couple of terms. Let new people come in continuously through lower levels of government. That is the point of democracy.
Elections are not to confirm family scions with zero experience to vault into office with a guaranteed 5 years and no accountability. That is so medieval Mughal.