The politics of top political offices

President must have an autonomous stature and not just be a signing machine for advice of prime minister.

Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi August 11, 2013
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian Affairs

Two recent selections for the top official positions by the PML-N have focused attention on how political parties select people to key official positions. Invariably, personal considerations of the top leaders or the loyalty factor override merit, professionalism, political stature and sacrifices for the political party.

President-elect Mamnoon Hussain is a personal selection of the prime minister and the PML-N chief, Nawaz Sharif. This is a repeat of the selection of the former president Rafiq Tarar (a former judge of the Supreme Court) in December 1997, who had no political standing in the party or outside. Mamnoon Hussain served as Governor of Sindh briefly in 1999 but he is a political nonentity within the PML-N and outside. He has hardly ever figured in the PML-N decision-making before, whether during or after the elections. Even in Karachi and Sindh politics, he has rarely figured.

He was the weakest of the party candidates. Others like Sartaj Aziz, Ghous Ali Shah and Iqbal Zafar Jhagra had better political stature and had long years of active service to the party. Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui was nominated as the PML-N candidate for president in 2008 when the PML-N had no chance of winning. This time, he was passed over. Another good choice was the Pir of Pagaro, an ally of the PML-N in the May 2013 elections. However, these people are autonomous entities and could carve out a role for them independent of Nawaz Sharif.

Another noteworthy selection is that of Muhammad Sarwar, a businessman from Glasgow, as the Governor the Punjab. He does not have a known political track record in the PML-N or in Pakistan’s politics. Personal considerations of the top PML-N leader were the decisive factor in this selection.

Before Pakistan achieved independence, the governor of Punjab used to come from the United Kingdom. Sixty-six years after independence, we again have a governor from that land, although the present governor surrendered his British citizenship.

The selection of the governor fits well with the well-known practice of the top people in power summoning overseas Pakistanis for holding key positions. The recent examples are Moeen Qureshi, Shaukat Aziz and Abdul Hafeez Sheikh. Such people stay in Pakistan only as long as they are holding official positions.

These people may be most competent but two factors need to be taken into account. One, are they the only competent people in Pakistan and abroad? Second, what are their personal stakes in Pakistan in terms of personal assets and family?

President Asif Ali Zardari also rewarded his jail-mates and close associates with cabinet or other positions. Now, the premium for the loyalty to the chief has increased under the PML-N government.

Have a look on the allocation of reserved seats for women in the national and Punjab assemblies. A large number of women on reserved seats from the PML-N are related to some important personality or the other. Only a small number of women have been inducted for service to the party or because of their political stature. The personal factor also figures in the selection to seats reserved for women in other political parties.

All this can be explained with reference to the culture of political parties in Pakistan. All political parties claim to stand for constitutionalism and participatory governance. However, the political parties are organised on an oligarchic pattern. The authority vests with the leader and his close associates, who often assign the highest value to unqualified loyalty rather than professionalism and merit. Any person that maintains an autonomous posture despite total commitment to the party and its leadership is viewed as a problematic case. It is not advisable to disagree seriously with the top leader at the high-level party meetings.

The other characteristic of high politics in political parties is factionalism. Different factions in the party jockey for power that also kills merit and professionalism. Any person seeking patronage and power must belong to or have the blessings of some powerful party faction. A professional and competent person stands little, if any, chance if he does not belong to a powerful party faction or does not enjoy a personal equation with the top party leader.

The current PML-N practice of placing people with no autonomous political standing in key official positions strengthens the position of the prime minister because all such leaders look towards him for guidance.

This approach is useful while the political going is good for Nawaz Sharif. However, if political power of the all-powerful Nawaz Sharif begins to unravel, other leaders in key positions also weaken because they never cultivate an autonomous position and role for themselves. As the main source of power, when the prime minister weakens, the whole system begins to crumble.

In case of an acute confrontation between the government and the opposition or between the federal government and the military, a president with no autonomous identity will not be able to manage conflicts.

It is important to recognise that the democratic system does not become strong and viable by concentration of power in one office. The people holding key positions are expected to identify with the prime minister, as required by the Constitution. However, they should not be viewed as an extension of the prime minister. Every constitutional office should develop an autonomous identity and role so that it can give independent advice or defuse political conflict.

It is important that the person holding the key position of president must have an autonomous and well-recognised political and societal stature. The president is the symbol of the state and must enjoy respect because of his professional competence, long political career and a vision for the future. If he works as the signing machine for the advice of the prime minister, he cannot rise to the stature of a well-respected figure, who is sought after for independent advice.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2013.

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