Need for a collective, shared Presidency | The News

July 2013

As legislatures prepare to elect the new President of Pakistan on 30th July 2013, it may be relevant to consider a radically different concept for the office of the Head of State of what is surely the most asymmetrical Federation in the world.

For a country of at least 180 million people, there are only four constituent Provinces of the Federation, the lowest number amongst States for so large a population. To compound the imbalance, one Province (Punjab ) has more residents than all the other three combined. And one other Province ( Balochistan ) with the lowest number of residents has almost as much land as all the other three combined. This unusual lop-sidedness remains one of the factors that continues to breed unease and mistrust between Provinces and about the power of the Federal Government in Islamabad even after the 18th Constitutional amendment.

In the context of considering a new approach to the Presidency it is not necessary to advocate an increase in the number of Provinces. That is a separate subject in itself whose pros and cons could be better addressed on another occasion.

At this time it is possible to consider the merits of an entirely different kind of Presidency for the State of Pakistan while retaining the existing number of Provinces.

The alternative possible model can be based on the principle of equitable sharing of a ceremonial yet important position. Instead of a single individual from one Province occupying the office for all five years, one individual from each of the four Provinces would hold the office for fifteen months.

Such a model would deepen and broaden participation by each Province in the most senior public office and reinforce the equality of representation of all four Provinces,a principle already present in the membership of the Senate.

The political party or coalition with a majority in the six legislatures ( Senate, National Assembly, and the four Provincial Assemblies) which form the electoral college for the Presidency would obviously have the advantage of being able to possibly nominate all four candidates in the suggested new model. Yet a shared Presidency would encourage, if not oblige the majority party or coalition to also consider supporting candidates from parties which may or may not be in power in one or two Provinces. This likelihood of complete consensus would further reduce the narrow partisanship that affects the choice of a single party-linked candidate. Divisiveness in voting is anti-thetical for a position that is supposed to represent the exact opposite of schisms.

The intention of candidates, and the fulfilment of such intentions, to resign from party membership if elected to the Presidency is a necessary and welcome step . However, this does not eliminate the hard facts of a long, past association with a particular party. That linkage will always endure in some form or the other.

In the letter and spirit of the Constitution, the office of President represents the supreme unity of the Federation in a comprehensive sense. This concept of transcendental singularity and unity is meant to synthesize the differences between Provinces, the range of all official institutions and the diversities of a pluralist society. It is not possible, indeed not even reasonable to expect an individual who has held offices in a political party to, overnight, surgically cut all emotional and mental bonds with his or her party and transform into a completely non-partisan personality. A rare person may be capable of this 180 degree change but that would be the rarest of exceptions.

Be that as it may : perhaps more than at any other time in the country's history, now, when both violent and non-violent religious extremism has introduced new inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian cleavages, to add to the simmering , poisonous brew of other discords, the State needs at its summit an authentic expression of unity and cohesion, of equity and equality.

The dimension of non-partisanship would be ideally enhanced if each of the four individuals were to be persons from sectors such as scholarship, public service, arts and literature, professional specialization as also if two are women and two men to ensure gender equity at the highest level of the State. This last feature is well within the grasp of a country that produced the world's first Muslim woman Prime Minister , the world's first woman Speaker of a directly elected National Assembly and the first woman to head a UN agency.

After the recent amendments to the Constitution --- an admirable achievement of the 2008-2012 Parliament --- the Presidency is meant to be a truly symbolic office, replete with full moral authority, bereft of political power .Unless like the President in the 2008-2012 term the office was combined with the headship of a political party.

A repetition of that example should be forever excluded.

Only one State has a somewhat similar model. But Switzerland has no conventional single President nor even a Prime Minister. A seven-member Executive Council enables each Member to serve as a kind of de facto Head of State by rotation when special circumstances or protocol require. Because the Swiss Constitution works on the principle of collegiality or shared responsibility by the Executive Council which is the entity representing the office of the Head of State.

In keeping with many of the unique dimensions of Pakistan's origins, the country does not have to wait for other countries to show the way. Let there be a candid debate to assess the advantages and demerits, if any, for an innovative approach to ensure authentic and participative unity in the Presidency of Pakistan.

( The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister, author of " Pakistan --unique origins; unique destiny ? " )