A politicised presidency

Our Consti­tution envisi­ons a presid­ent who remain­s above partis­an politi­cs.


Rubina Saigol May 18, 2011

The Lahore High Court (LHC) judgement aimed at restraining the president from participating in political activities is eminently sensible. The judgement has merit and seems to reflect the spirit of the constitution.

Lawyers point out that there is nothing in the Constitution that specifically prohibits the president from engaging in partisan politics. Nevertheless, there are several things in the Constitution that are implied, though not explicitly stated. The intention of its framers can potentially be inferred from other clauses that suggest that the president in Pakistan was conceived of as a ceremonial figurehead, exemplified by Fazal Elahi Chaudhary and Rafiq Tarar.

A careful reading of the Constitution suggests that our Constitution envisions a president who remains above partisan politics. Firstly, Article 41 states that the president shall be the head of state and represent the unity of the republic.

The head of state is a position that differs from head of government in that the government is expected to govern the country in line with the party’s manifesto and in accordance with the law and Constitution; on the other hand, the head of state represents not just one party but everyone, including those who belong to the opposition. In other words, while the government may be formed by one (or a few) parties, the state belongs to everyone, including those who voted against the ruling party. A president associated deeply with one party means that the neutrality of the state with respect to all political actors is compromised.

The post of the president was envisaged along the lines of the British monarch who remains impartial regarding the party in power. This political distance can enable a neutral president to potentially mediate between warring parties in case of deadlock. A close relationship between one party and the president, means that the president would not be able to mediate in case of conflict between competing parties.

Secondly, Article 243(2) states that the supreme command of the armed forces shall vest with the president. This article further clarifies the intention of the framers of the Constitution, for they would not want the armed forces to be headed by one political party. The armed forces, as paid servants of the state, are expected to be neutral and impartial with regard to partisan politics. The fact that General (retd) Musharraf made a mockery of this clause, does not mean that a democratic government should follow his abominable precedent. It was he, who invented the tradition of political party meetings inside the presidency. To add insult to injury, he was still in uniform while performing presidential functions.

Thirdly, the oath of the president of Pakistan, apart from reaffirming that the president shall protect and defend the constitution of the country, also states that he would not allow his personal interest to influence his official conduct or official decisions. The holding of the top office of a political party means that the president would naturally pursue the interests of the party and further its goals. This would cause a conflict of interest with the position of president because he is expected to refrain from party politics and uphold the interests and well-being of the whole country. A president linked deeply with one political party can easily become a divisive and controversial figure.

This is what happened in case of governor’s rule in Punjab. The office of the governor, formerly occupied by a Musharraf appointee, had been deeply politicised and became the hub of political activity. Instead of promoting the unity of the federation, disunity and friction were created to overthrow one political party and install another. The holding of PPP Central Executive Committee meetings in the presidency; using the presidential palace to launch Bilawal as a successor to the PPP crown, and the president touring in England to launch his son’s official career as a party head, are all activities that compromise the neutrality of the president and must be avoided in the future. Surely, all such activities can wait until President Zardari relinquishes that office in 2013 or later. In the meantime, he needs to act as a statesman above partisan interests.

The PPP seems to be conflating two very distinct meanings of the term ‘political’ or ‘political activity’. In its broadest sense, the term ‘political’ means that social existence, by definition, is political existence. When we live in society (as opposed to some Arctic desert with no other human around), we are immediately immersed in power relations and in a power hierarchy. We immediately belong to a class, sect, religion, caste, ethnicity, nation, country, gender and so on. We transact with others based on our various positions; in other words some people are more powerful than us, others less so. This makes our entire existence political. In this sense, of course, the president cannot be an apolitical entity.

On the other hand, partisan politics means that we are politically affiliated with one political party, which is opposed to others who are also vying for power. In this sense, many citizens are not actively political. However, what it means is that, as political party members, we promote one particular form of thought, action and practice as opposed to others; we represent one group over others and so on. Since this is potentially and practically a contest between opposing views, opinions and practices, a neutral and impartial body is needed to represent all citizens, irrespective of political affiliation and belonging. This is what the president, as a figurehead, does in a parliamentary democracy. The armed forces, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and provincial governors, as state functionaries, are also expected to play an impartial role.

It is a good omen that the LHC has given a restrained verdict, which does not endeavour to disqualify the president on these grounds. It recommends that the president disassociate himself from his political activities as long as he holds the august office. The PPP should accept this decision with grace and maturity.



Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2011.

COMMENTS (2)

Nadeem Akhter | 10 years ago | Reply The judgment should have been given a long time back. It dos not take a law specialist to understand the a President of the State should be neutral, unbiased and wok with honesty and selflessly. While i commend the step taken, but also feel that this should have been done a lot earlier
TightDhoti | 10 years ago | Reply The President has boxed himself into a corner. If he stays on, he will be criticized for holding two offices, if he drops one responsibility it will be seen as a weakness.
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