Mar 18, 2009

Fix the structure

When the transition to democracy began last year, there was an urgent need to right the constitutional balance of power among the various state institutions. Gen Musharraf had concentrated power in the presidency because that was the office from which he oversaw the executive. But across the political spectrum there is agreement that parliament sans the president should be the one calling the shots.
From the executive side, this means, inter alia, the prime minister having the powers to appoint key officers of the state and his cabinet having meaningful powers over ministries like defence. From the parliamentary perspective, it means strengthening the legislative and oversight roles of the assemblies. Meanwhile, vertically, the relationship between the centre and the provinces needs to be revised because the federal government lords it over the provinces in too many areas.
The politicians understand all of this. Or at least they do when not in power. In May 2006, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed the Charter of Democracy, which has a recipe to resolve many of the structural problems that beset the state. Yet, a year since an elected parliament has been in place, there has been no movement. Both sides are to blame. The government for emphasising the consolidation of power rather than righting constitutional wrongs. The opposition, led by the PML-N, for putting the judges issue before less glamorous constitutional issues. But now that the decks have been cleared — Gen Musharraf is gone, Chief Justice Chaudhry is to be restored, the Senate elections have been held and the threat of street agitation has receded — the politicians must immediately address the structural issues.
Two points need to be flagged. One, the window for constitutional change is small. Seventeen amendments to a constitution that is 36 years old may sound a lot, but they have mostly come when one party or individual dominates the political landscape. That is not the case with the current parliament. But after the weekend’s events, there is a sense of cooperation in the air.
The politicians must seize this moment before another issue bubbles up and they go at it hammer and tongs. Punjab is clearly a space contested between the PML-N and PPP, so they should use the respite to do good. The second point is that as much as personality may dominate our politics, the rules still constrain them. Gen Musharraf found that out last August when he was cornered by the elected representatives. And President Zardari too knows this, for why else would he have tried so hard to keep Iftikhar Chaudhry out? If we are ever to get out of the rut of instability, the rules governing the system must be reset. Now is the chance. Allow it to slip by, and the country is guaranteed to suffer again.

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