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A delicate balancing act

Separation of legislation and executive can curtail the abuse of absolute power

By Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan |
PUBLISHED December 19, 2021

The following is an excerpt from the book Two Years of Democracy in Pakistan (2018-2020) : Scholarly View on Pakistan's democracy, Two Years democratic Journey, Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan, Pak-US Relations. The author is a former Assistant professor of International Relations at National Defense University Islamabad and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, Garisson University Lahore.

Many, if not most of us, spend some of our time reading historians, philosophers and scholars from the past. Hardly ever satisfying our intellectual curiosity, these great men and women of wisdom keep us engaged and accommodated in a very honest, rewarding and unselfish comfortable space called ‘intellectual history’. In intellectual history there is a high degree of consensus amongst most scholars about what actually constitutes goodness. Therefore, finding in history the answer to the question ‘what is good?’ is not difficult.

I am deeply interested in the relationship between historians, the intellectual scholars and our politicians. Politicians have mocked and dismissed scholars and philosophers and their findings from the time that Thales of Miletus, a Greek mathematician and astronomer, the pre-Socratic philosopher fell down in a well while looking up at the stars. Politicians since then have mocked scholars saying that “it is better to keep one’s mind on earth”. I can’t say whether politicians share a common ground with scholars/ philosophers but what I can safely say is that in a country like Pakistan let alone evaluating, many politicians don’t even study their ideas or are hardly ever interested in finding and tracing the influences of their ideas. This book talks about some of those ideas and takes a ‘scholarly view of democracy’ — to see how the great historians/ philosophers and scholars have spoken about certain aspects of democracy, power and leadership so that a roadmap could be created seeing which less and less mistakes would be committed by the politicians.

“Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English scholar and a writer of more than 50 books. But his book that gathered most attention was Brave New World which was published in 1931 and which predicted that “someday the world will live under a dictatorship”, that in the likely “world of horror” there will be less and less freedom. Ironically, when the book was published Hitler was not yet in power and the world was yet to experience the horrors of World War II. Huxley determined that three forces would push us in his imagined world, they included: overpopulation, where death control will not remain in balance with birth control; over-organization (bureaucracy), not only of the public but private sector as well; and lastly propaganda about which he said, “We shouldn’t be surprised by our advanced technology”.

Seventy-nine years later in Pakistan, all three forces are playing their due roles; and whereas overpopulation and its consequences need no elaboration, it is the other two ‘over-organization and propaganda’ that stand out as the persistent forces of change — not to the good but to the worst. Technology is being consistently used (abused) as Huxley predicted to “bypass the rationale side of the man and appeal instead to his below the surface subconscious and deeper emotions”. Political candidates can be merchandised and made to appear not only amiable, appealing and charismatic but also trustworthy and dependable. But as soon as they occupy the positions of political trust, they prove to be a huge disappointment. Over-organization (bureaucracy) has actually taken the center stage and working under the shadow of politics (politicians) who made it more loyal to them than to the state — the over-organization today demonstrates unilateralism and great independence to plot its own road and makes its own way.

When a head of the government leads both the ‘legislative branch’ as well as the ‘executive branch’, what else should the public expect but bad governance due to lack of check and balance. Separation of legislation and executive can curtail the abuse of absolute power (over-organization) rested in the rulers. The debate that has led to the affability of the presidential system is not because that untried presidential form of government will be better than the current parliamentary form but actually because the current parliamentary system is not delivering. The executive must get selected on merit. Why the members of the cabinet have to be the members of the legislature? How can the most specialized tasks be performed by the cabinet members whose only reasons to the access to the cabinet are their ability to get elected to parliament, be in the good books of the Prime Minister, do anything to get his nod and approval. Is this what we call egalitarian democracy or a democracy of nepotism, preferences and patronage? Why wouldn’t any PM (even if he is sincerely inclined to deliver) eight months later not find that those put in the position of political and executive authority were not in the first place capable and competent enough to hold the positions they held?

Presidents whether it is Trump, Putin, Erdogan or the Presidents of 19 out of the 23 republics in South America have fixed terms. The presidents that are directly elected have no such vulnerabilities as the ‘vote of no confidences’, ‘long marches’ and ‘dharnas’. Direct election by the people ensures ‘more power and legitimacy to the leader’. Politics in this country needs a positive, civic criticism, not a put-up show in which the executive and the legislature under the same rulers work under a controlled and enabling environment in which loyalists churn out fake, corrupted, sickening flow of uninterrupted political and executive work that shames the very name of democracy. Politics feeds all and sundry under its democratic control to remain shut up and stay mute. If Huxley was alive today, he would smile looking at the pettiness of the Pakistani politics and the way politics utilizes propaganda (utilizing all tools of social media) by saying the same thing over and over again and drumming in their ideas circumventing our rational side and affecting our subconscious and through it our minds.

The current deadlocked parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister cannot execute or undertake any legislation is not fulfilling the very purpose for which the legislatures were elected and sent to the assemblies. If these legislatures can do nothing to improve (legislate), the social contract (constitution) that binds those (rulers) with the ruled then why even debate the efficacy of this system in this country’s very definite, precise and very specific political environment.

In the actual brave new world of today in which new power models are being implemented — the essence lies in rapid political response to the emerging situations and crisis. The system of politics that we have doesn’t create response it actually builds and re-builds crisis after crisis. Can we afford this and for how long? Can we even afford the propagandists tied to one party or another churning out narratives after narratives to implant through social media their ideas and situate the love for lost causes (politicians) in our mind’s day after day? This unstoppable propaganda by the beneficiaries of the politics living in the same political lagoon is damaging and harming the psyche of a nation that has unfortunately been poorly led for a very long time.

History tells us that France shifted to presidential system during the Algerian war, Sri Lanka shifted to the system during its war against terror and Turkey when civil war engulfed the states that shared its borders (Syria and Iraq). Politically, the results of these shifts have been more than positive. Some of the prime ministers that this country had may not have been the best that we deserved. Their only merit and access to the post of premier has been their loyalty to the political boss. This indirect election of some of the very average occupants of this office shredded to pieces the very idea of meritocracy. Huxley’s world of less and less freedom is hitting us in our face. That it is doing it in a period of sustained democracy tells us that there is definitely something wrong with the system. If perfectibility is defined as man’s ability to copy others, there is room to think why we are politically so imperfect.”

‘Civil-Military Relations’ is a major portion of the book – an excerpt from the portion reads – “Twenty months before his due date of retirement (Nov 2019), Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa during an informal talk with a selected group of journalists shared some of his views (they remain institutional as long as he occupies the office of army chief) on reshaping policies. Being termed the “Bajwa doctrine” both in the local as well as the foreign press, these views it seems were more governed by reason than controlled by the dictate of policy. The best part of the general’s discourse with journalists was that he laid out ‘his (institutional) vision of the possible policy changes’ right on the table. Ideally, policy must understand the capabilities and the limits of the instrument it employs. In a developed world, policy does that by engaging in repeated ‘national security dialogues’ with the instrument. Here the instrument laments policymakers to change their behavior in order to improve their own image thus improving the overall image of the state that they both represent.

General Bajwa’s doctrine seems more significant and relevant seen in the backdrop of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) action plan that has now subjected us to a monitoring process. Planning a future course of action, change in the national policies without concrete political participation is as dangerous as allowing the politicians to interfere with the details of accomplishing any battlefield military operation. In the developed world, reassessing the nature of threat and matching capabilities to challenge these threats by both the policy and the instruments is a routine phenomenon and a continuous process. Why is it termed an individual doctrine when a person or an institution does some deliberation on it here?

To me it has got everything to do with the lack of institutional communication. This too is so lopsided in favor of the policy that it can go ahead and accuse publicly the instrument of manipulating politics but the instrument even when it draws the national attention to what the nation needs to do to fashion its policies to overcome the threats it faces it is accused of overlooking its mandated constitutional role. The big question that needs to be asked is not who is subservient to whom (as that is pretty much written in the constitution) — the big question to answer is shouldn’t the policy and the instruments get together and represent not their own but the interests of the state?"