A President For The Times: Life After Alvi

A President For The Times: Life After Alvi
In a little over three months’ time, the Aiwan-e-Sadr will welcome a new occupant. The curtain will descend on the innings of Dr Arif Alvi, whose undistinguished presidential tenure has, over the last fourteen months, been marred by unseemly political controversies, breaches of constitutional norms, unbecoming disputes with the PDM government and displays of blatant bias in favour of the PTI.

Who will be the new President of Pakistan? The answer is unknown and this is probably because the PDM and its allies have yet not decided upon a candidate. Precisely for this reason, now is the time to have a discussion on the criteria for the selection of the next president and on suitable candidates who may be considered for the role.

But before moving to this issue, an introductory look is warranted at the nature of the office of President of Pakistan and the persons who have held this office to-date.

Unlike the case of India, where the president has remained a constitutional figurehead and above the hurly-burly of partisan politics, in Pakistan the powers and functions of the presidential office have not remained constant. Rather, the presidency has been regularly tailored to meet the changing needs of the relevant era and of the particular individual who has occupied the office of president.

In times of military rule, presidents Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Pervez Musharraf, have been all-powerful heads-of-state, wielding martial law powers in addition to being vested with all executive authority of the state. But during the times of parliamentary government, the president has either been a total figure-head, such as presidents Fazal Illahi Chaudhry, Rafiq Ahmed Tarar and Mamnoon Hussain Qureshi, or an assertive and empowered head of state, often also armed with the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, such as Syed Iskander Ali Mirza, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari.

With such a chequered history of the evolution of the presidential office, it is not surprising that we have lost sight of the original role that was envisaged for the president by the framers of the constitution in 1973.

According to Article 41 of the constitution, the president is the head of state and he represents the unity of the republic. Article 41 has remained in its original form, since neither Zia-ul-Haq nor Pervez Musharraf tampered with it, therefore it can be said to fully represent the vision of the constitution-makers.

If we briefly scrutinise Article 41, the president’s position can be broken down into two parts: first, the president is the head of the State of Pakistan (“State” generally refers to a political organisation comprising the territory, the population, the government and the sovereignty of a country); and, second, the oneness of the republic, comprising the four provinces and the federal capital, is vested in the office of the president.

The state and the republic represent the overarching concept whereby the people of Pakistan have joined together to collectively order their lives through the instrument of government as a sovereign nation. Politics relates to government, which is just one of the integral elements of the state/republic. But as the state represents the whole nation, and not just any partisan or sectional interest, therefore the state must transcend politics and remain neutral.

Therefore, if the president is to honestly play the role laid down for him in Article 41, he must remain above politics, rather he should be totally apolitical. This is not an optional course of action, rather it is an inherent requirement of the constitutional scheme dealing with the governance of the state.
Based on the tarnished record of the current president, it is all the more important that his successor should be cut from a very different cloth. Beset by crises and a multitude of woes, ranging from an economy in peril, a polarised society and a steep fall in standards of governance, the country desperately needs a president who is a person of integrity

Sadly, the above rule has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance by the persons who have held the president’s office since 1973. Only three men could be said to have played a non-political innings as president, and to have refrained from taking up cudgels against the prime minister of the day. Fazal Ellahi Chaudhry, Rafiq Tarar and Mamnoon Hussain are the three gentlemen in question.

However, any credit that accrued to these three persons on account of their adherence to constitutional norms proved to be insufficient to override their generally lackluster, banal and rather pedestrian tenures. They simply lacked the gravitas, high standing and moral authority which any president worth his salt must possess if he is to serve as the uniting force of the republic and as the father figure for the state.

Nevertheless, when seen in juxtaposition to the controversial presidential career of Dr Alvi, the tenures of his above three predecessors actually seem impressive, notwithstanding their ordinariness. This is because of the uniquely partisan manner in which Arif Alvi has conducted himself as president, in particular since the government of his leader fell in April 2022. Even by our unedifying political standards, Arif Alvi’s bias in favour of the PTI is breath-taking in its brazenness.

The matter of the appointment of the army chief in November 2029 vividly drives home the point. Upon receiving the prime minister’s recommendation to appoint General Syed Asim Munir as the COAS, an advice he was constitutionally duty-bound to comply with, Arif Alvi audaciously jetted off to Lahore in the presidential jet to consult with the PTI Chairman on the matter. In so doing he violated his oath of office in three different respects.

First, he breached his obligation to discharge his duties in accordance with the constitution and law, since neither of these instruments permit, leave alone require, the president to consult with a political party leader on the matter of the appointment of the army chief.

Second, Dr Alvi fell foul of that part of his oath which requires that his personal interest should not influence his official conduct or his official decisions – clearly it was only his personal interest which led him to consult with his erstwhile party leader, Imran Khan Niazi, on the question of appointing the COAS, and no official or legal requirement compelled him to do so.

Third, the oath prescribes that the president should do right to all manner of people, according to law and without fear or favour. In the matter of the army chief’s appointment, the president was bound to comply with the advice of the prime minister and he owed it to the incoming COAS to make his appointment in accordance with law and without fear or favour. Did Arif Alvi do the right thing by the prime minister or by General Asim Munir by talking to the PTI chief on the latter’s appointment? Clearly the answer is in the negative.

Based on the tarnished record of the current president, it is all the more important that his successor should be cut from a very different cloth. Beset by crises and a multitude of woes, ranging from an economy in peril, a polarised society and a steep fall in standards of governance, the country desperately needs a president who is a person of integrity, who will uphold the constitution and who can contribute to healing divisions in society and restoring the image of the presidency.

As a starting point, it should be clear that the president should neither hail from Punjab nor from Sindh. Persons from these two provinces have occupied the great offices of state far too often – the present president and his three predecessors have hailed from Sindh, while the present prime minister and his five predecessors have been residents of the Punjab!

The selection of the prime minister is tied purely to the mandate of scores of millions of Pakistanis and it is therefore not possible to occasionally earmark the role for a particular province. The same cannot be said for the office of the president, which is filled by the votes of an electoral college comprising only of the members of parliament and the four provincial assemblies. Therefore, the presidential office can be informally reserved for the coming term for a representative from KPk or Balochistan.

Balochistan has been riven with ferment and strife for nearly two decades, eversince the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti. There is a marked feeling of disenchantment with the federation among segments of the Baloch people, and that has provided oxygen to militant organisations such as the BNA and the BLA, who have taken up arms to pursue the extreme demand of independence for the province – of course, India has also stirred the pot. The army and paramilitary forces have been determinedly arrayed against these organisations, and hundreds of officers and jawans have laid down their lives battling them. Yet there is no end in sight to the insurgency. This suggests that the solution to the province’s vexed issues may lie not in an elusive military triumph but rather in a political settlement within the parameters of the constitution.

An important preliminary step towards the ultimate goal of bringing peace to Balochistan would be to take an important confidence-building measure which applies balm to Baloch wounds. The election of a first-ever president from Balochistan is the obvious step and, in my view, Dr Abdul Malik Baloch of the Balochistan National Party is the most ideal candidate for this purpose.

Dr Abdul Malik Baloch

The arguments in favour of the avuncular Dr Abdul Malik are numerous: a Baloch from Balochistan; a respected politician; a man with a well-rounded background, including a technical qualification, namely a medical degree; a person who possesses administrative and governmental experience, having been Balochistan’s chief minister from 2013-2015; of middle class origins; with no scandal to his name; and, above all, loyal to the Pakistani state.

However, Dr Abdul Malik’s election cannot come to pass unless the leaders of the PML-N and the PPP subordinate their own parochial stake for the presidency in favour of the cause of national unity and of giving Balochistan its place under the sun. Needless to say, the establishment too has to smile on the idea. Whether all of this will happen is the million dollar question!

Suffice it to say that the forthcoming presidential election presents a golden opportunity to start the process of bringing Balochistan back into the fold as a normal and peaceful federating unit. The nation’s decision-makers need foresight and wisdom to grab this opportunity and to do the right thing by the country’s largest province.

The writer is a barrister with over twenty years of varied legal practice in Pakistan, UAE and Australia. He is currently an entrepreneur and the co-founder/operator of an online home-based confectionery business. The history and politics of Pakistan is his abiding passion. He can be reached at yzaman72@yahoo.com.au