President? But we already have a PM!

The office of the president in parliamentary democracies morphed from the role of the monarch

Yesterday, the thirteenth President of Pakistan was elected by the National Assembly, Senate and the four provincial assemblies. Regardless of who won, we must not forget the rationale behind the office of the president and its function. Confusion about the duties of the president only weakens democracy and retards its development.

The office of the president in parliamentary democracies morphed from the role of the monarch. In Britain, democracy developed initially as a means of checking the power of the monarch through the creation of a House of Lords, representing the barons, the upper classes and the religious hierarchy, and the House of Commons, representing businesses, traders, and other special interests. Slowly, as the monarch appointed more and more ministers to run the day to day affairs of government, these members of the houses of parliament became more powerful, and eventually the most important among them, the First Lord of the Treasury, began to be known as the ‘Prime Minister.’

Then from the early nineteenth century onwards, the gradual expansion of the electorate meant that the hereditary House of Lords kept losing power to the popularly elected House of Commons. Similarly, the monarch who would routinely appoint whoever they liked as the ‘Prime Minister,’ had to accept the leader of the party which won the popular election in the House of Commons.

This curtailment of the role and the power of the monarch meant that by the end of that century, the monarch became largely apolitical and ceremonial, existing above and beyond the political squabbles of the day. This change of role did limit the political power of the monarch but greatly increased their prestige and popularity, while also boosting their moral power. Now the monarch was a symbol of freedom and rights, and, not being aligned with any political party, truly represented the country — becoming the centre of what Walter Bagehot called the ‘dignified’ aspect of the British constitution.

As the British Empire unravelled, several new countries were created which adopted the Westminster style of government. These former colonies had little experience of the parliamentary style under formal British rule, plus the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and complicated nature of most former British realms, meant that a pluralistic parliamentary democracy was most suited to their conditions.

Now, while it was easy to elect a prime minister from the popularly elected chamber, the tricky question was about the ‘Governor General’ who was the representative of the monarch in the colony. As countries decided to become ‘republics’, either the office of the governor general would have to be abolished or replaced by something new. Abolishing the office would have been easy as in the democratic constitutions of most former British colonies, power was concentrated in the office of the prime minister and the elected house. But that would have meant that there would be no neutral or independent government office in the country. All offices would be purely political and in the time of a crisis there would be no one to look up to as a symbol of unity and non-partisan behaviour. Therefore, in order to provide stability, a focus of unity, and non-partisan behaviour, the office of the governor general evolved into the office of the president, as formerly British colonies became republics.

While ridiculed for not doing much, President Mamnoon Hussain’s success was exactly that he did not indulge in political affairs, and kept aloof

Unfortunately in Pakistan, the confusion over what the president’s role should be has obfuscated the office and undermined its real utility. For various reasons, Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not choose to become the prime minster (like Nehru in India), but became the governor general, thereby making the ceremonial office the most important political office in the country.

He did however, resign from the presidentship of the Muslim League, citing his new role where he was to represent all the people of Pakistan rather than just members of one political party. Sadly, after him there was only a short period where the office of governor general returned to its ceremonial position, and with the elevation of Ghulam Mohammad in 1951, it again became the centre of political activity. General Ayub Khan changed the form of government to a presidential one, and it was only in the 1973 Constitution that the ceremonial role of the president was restored.

However, General Zia-ul-Haq made the country’s system a semi-presidential one with the infamous Article 58 (2)(b) as the centrepiece. Thereafter, it took almost two decades for the office of president to return to its original shape, only to be undermined again by General Pervez Musharraf. It was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which restored the office to its originally intended form.

When President Mamnoon Hussain took the other of office on September 9, 2013, therefore, he was the first president in recent memory to assume the true role of president — apolitical, ceremonial, and dignified. While ridiculed for not doing much, President Mamnoon Hussain’s success was exactly that he did not indulge in political affairs, and kept aloof.

The new President must keep the following in mind: First, that he is no longer a member of a political party, but represents the people of Pakistan. Therefore, ideally he should resign from any political party membership, just like the Quaid-e-Azam.

Secondly, he should keep the office dignified, and not indulge in any purely political issue. Politics is the job of the prime minister and the houses of parliament, and should be left to them.  Thirdly, the president should take the lead in promoting the arts, culture, education, and other civic activities. In the UK, members of the royal family are active patrons of hundreds of charities and participate in thousands of events related to them each year. The President of Pakistan should also take a lead in such affairs, and provide true non-partisan leadership to the country. Good Luck, Mr President!

The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK

Published in Daily Times, September 5th 2018.