Bringing An End To One Man Shows

Bringing An End To One Man Shows
Pakistan is a story of “one-man” shows from its inception. The story keeps repeating, with the characters reincarnating themselves as Army chiefs, Presidents, Chief Justices, Prime Ministers, political party heads, bureaucrats, or elites who grab power to use it for their advantage. In their fights with each other, they enjoy fashioning political, judicial, and economic crises – that can sometimes cascade into a confluence of multiple crises like the one we are in right now. These one-man shows love to over-power the system in their desire to acquire or stay in power, and divide people among themselves to foment hatred against each other and to keep the audience preoccupied.

Irrespective of the current situation, we should not have any doubt that the current political, economic, and judicial crises were bound to spring up sooner or later. Seventy-five years of military rule, direct or indirect, judicial activism and unconstitutional judgements, and politics driven by vengeance along with a deeply exploitative and extractive economic model of running a country can only result in what we are seeing today.

Although things look dismal at this point, Pakistan needed shock therapy to get out of this vicious cycle of institutions and individuals trying to rule the country, while creating crises due to petty and selfish infighting.  How Pakistan goes forward from here is all dependent on how the state’s institutions and civil society deal with the current situation.

In an earlier article on improving governance, it was suggested that all three power centers - civil, military, and judiciary - need to realize their past mistakes and work together to resolve issues instead of overstepping their roles and battling with each other. Sadly, and rather predictably, this did not happen and has gotten even worse during the last 6 months. But it is not too late; all they need to do is to start a process focused on self-accountability to make their respective institutions, and consequently the state, stronger. This is best achieved when the process starts from those who are responsible for leading their institutions. Once they change their behavior and subject themselves to the restraints provided by the Constitution, they will start holding everyone else accountable the same way.

While some of the people ultimately responsible for ensuring the rule of law have openly started this process of self-accountability in the Supreme Court, not all judges are following suit. In fact, ego and power are driving the Chief Justice to cause divisions within the judiciary. Things are becoming messy and will cause more upheaval, but no steps should be taken to shut the door on the democratic process.  If anything, it is time to introspect and understand that the rule of law should apply not only to the common people, but also to the ruling elite. It is the absence of this rule of law and the resulting abuse of power that are the root of the problem.

It is also important for the military to stay out of politics and the current mess. It must also continue to expand its self-accountability, irrespective of how chaotic this becomes. Pakistan needs to go through this process organically once for it to survive and prosper. Unnatural and unconstitutional interruptions have only delayed this process and have already caused immense damage to the state. Doing so again is a path to destruction.

Electoral reform

Pakistan needs serious electoral, economic, and constitutional reforms to avoid these crises in the future. Electoral reforms must address the system’s ability to accommodate dictatorial tendencies and the process of accountability must start from selecting candidates for elections. Economic reforms must tackle the inequalities and distortions that have become inherent to the economy, and invest in skills development, increased productivity, and improvement in energy infrastructure and manufacturing for exports to revive the economy. Constitutional reforms must limit the powers of the Chief Ministers, party heads, provincial governments, the Supreme Court, and the military.

It is imperative that we eliminate the power of the party head or parliamentary board to select “electables” for elections.

It’s not enough for the people’s representatives to pass quick legislation to rightfully limit the power of the Chief Justice, they need to take similar quick actions to give power back to the people who have entrusted these politicians to represent and serve them. If Parliament is the supreme body representing the will of people, it needs to start respecting the will of the people.

The people’s representatives must lead the way by showing how self-accountability can start transforming the country. They need to hold themselves and their party to high standards of accountability and consider legislating a number of key electoral reforms through an act of Parliament.

It is imperative that we eliminate the power of the party head or parliamentary board to select “electables” for elections. All candidates for general elections for a party should be selected by a primary election process, the same as in the US, for each constituency by voters registered as party members or independents. Any registered party member should be eligible to file for candidacy without seeking approval from the party. A party head or board may only provide recommendations to party voters.

No candidate should be allowed to run for two or more constituencies simultaneously, either federal or provincial. The country cannot afford to spend money on reelections for vacated seats by candidates who run and win from multiple constituencies. All candidates and their dependents must declare their total income and its sources as well as any assets owned by them. A record of all assets purchased, sold, and transferred during the previous 5 years must be declared, certified by the relevant government authority or the party head. All candidates and elected members must pay income tax as per the prescribed rate, irrespective of source of income.

All candidates must provide a list of criminal cases pending against them, certified by their respective High Court as well as the party head. The courts shall be directed by the Election Commission to hear cases daily and deliver judgements within one month after elections, including one appeal against the judgement, before elected members take the oath.

Once these electoral reforms are in place and adhered to, these will go a long way in building the trust between the voters and their representatives, which is currently lacking. This will start the process of transformation from one-man shows to an inclusive democracy.

Looking outwards, then inwards

The one-man shows have made Pakistan irrelevant to its people and the world. They have caused the country to lose all credibility, even with traditionally friendly countries, which will soon start excluding Pakistan from their global initiatives. While the world around Pakistan is investing in advanced technologies, semiconductors, renewable energy, and electric vehicles, Pakistan is stuck between sugar and textiles as the rules of the economy seek to protect the economic interests of a narrow and self-interested elite, who command power and force the government to continue with wasteful policies of subsidies and tax exemptions.

The current government has failed to bring any substantial economic reforms in the last twelve months and continues to protect their traditional support base - 2.2 million shopkeeper were not taxed because of political concerns – as per Miftah Ismail, due to election year politics.

Similarly, it does not bode well for the economy when a group of businessmen meets with the Army chief and push for import-substitution policies and corporate farming for their own profits, and the Punjab government quickly transfers 45,000 acres of land to the army (under LHC review now) for this purpose. The rulers must realize that these extractive economic policies cannot continue if Pakistan wants to grow its economy and be relevant to the world.

The Parliament should set an example for the nation, especially for powerful groups, by legislating that all elected members of federal, provincial, and local governments must pay income tax as per the prescribed rate, irrespective of source of income and exemptions.

The Parliament is also neglecting its duties and responsibilities towards the people who elected them by sitting idly and acting as a rubber stamp to finance ministry’s policies affecting a vast majority of people. It needs to be as assertive as it is against the opposition and the judiciary and take immediate actions to put the country on the path of sustained economic growth.

First, along the lines of advice given by Dr Reza Baqir, the Parliament’s finance committees must form a team of 8 to 10 non-partisan leading economists and give them a task to act like Pakistan’s own IMF. This team should consult with other economists, UNDP and the World Bank, industry and trader groups, farmer’s associations, exporters, members of civil society and other stakeholders to suggest reforms based on Pakistan’s conditions instead of the ones dictated by the IMF. These economists not only have the credibility but also the best credentials to convince the powerful groups that a growing economy is beneficial for them as well.

These economists should recommend both short-term budgetary measures as well as long-term structural economic reforms within the next few months to the joint parliamentary committee in an open hearing, televised live. This should be followed by an open vote by all parliamentarians on these recommendations and make it binding for the executive branch to act accordingly.

Second, the Parliament should set an example for the nation, especially for powerful groups, by legislating that all elected members of federal, provincial, and local governments must pay income tax as per the prescribed rate, irrespective of source of income and exemptions. Also, to avoid conflicts of interest, the businesses owned by these members and their families must be ineligible to receive any government subsidy or tax exemption.

Third, while the team of economists is working on comprehensive structural reforms, the Parliament should address people’s key concerns - elite capture and inequalities, lack of job opportunities, and no economic growth - by taking some immediate actions. Rapid economic reform can not only help reduce the structural inequalities inherent to the economy, but also provide money for investing in agriculture productivity enhancements, skills development, and export-oriented manufacturing.

Fostering economic growth

A capital gains tax on real estate should be a priority.

Like agricultural tax, agricultural subsidies should be made a provincial responsibility also. If a province is providing more subsidies than it is collecting in tax, the difference should be subtracted from federal government funding to that province.

The federal government should focus on funding agricultural technology research centers for improving productivity and yield, and to provide low-cost loans to small farmers who own less than 10 acres of land to implement these techniques on their farms.

The federal government should redirect tax revenue to improve IT infrastructure and to establish IT centers of excellence, conducting boot camps for recent college graduates in collaboration with IT training institutes in the US. The federal government should also cover 50 to 100% of the fee for qualified students, based on family income & a competency test. This can prepare hundreds of thousands of skilled IT professionals with access to the American market to increase export of IT services.  The manpower demand in IT sector is continuously increasing and these boot camps provide college graduates an opportunity to enhance their skills.

A capital gains tax on real estate should be a priority. The implementation of a fixed 20% capital gains tax on real estate and other assets, irrespective of the holding period will pay dividends. However, using the same concept as 1031 exchange in the US, this capital gains tax should be exempted for a period of 5 years if the money is invested in government funds targeted for energy infrastructure upgrades and incentivizing foreign companies to open export-oriented manufacturing plants for solar panels, batteries, and electronic equipment in Pakistan. This will move the money from non-productive assets such as real estate to highly productive ones, enhancing Pakistan’s exports.

The government should institute an alternate minimum tax, such as the one in the US, where high earners, making more than Rs 10 million per year, should pay a minimum of 25% in federal tax, irrespective of deductions or exemptions.

With over half the respondents in a recent Gallup survey favoring a viable alternative, people have given up on current political parties and leaders to bring about any change.  The coalition parties have the advantage of being in the government to change that perception in the next few months, only if they put their own interests aside and do the right thing for the country.

Supreme law

While Pakistan celebrated 50 years of adopting the 1973 Constitution this month, it also finds itself in a deep constitutional crisis – created by a nexus of politico-judicial one-man shows. It is time to reflect on why the Constitution has failed to deliver the framers’ intention of supremacy of law and a viable democratic system of government. In fact, the Constitution has become a source of political and judicial instability, largely because it gave too much power to a few individuals and institutions to interpret and use it as they will, without providing important safeguards against the abuse of this power.

No Constitution is perfect, and its intent and spirit must be held above written words, however, when the abuse of power is so extensive, there is a critical need now for clearly defining some provisions and removing some powers given to individuals and institutions to bring political stability.

We have seen in the past multiple incidents when Supreme Court judges abused their power and blatantly justified unconstitutional military takeovers and suspension of the Constitution without any repercussions, passed death sentences to a former Prime Minister, and disqualified a sitting Prime Minister for life on flimsy charges, each time creating a political crisis. The same pattern is being followed again, with some judges in the Supreme Court rewriting the Constitution to fit the needs of one person, thus deepening the political crisis and creating a judicial one.

Similarly, the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers are given powers to dissolve assemblies without providing any justifications. The party heads are also given unchecked power to decide how their members of assembly should vote or force them to resign. The provincial assemblies are given power to dissolve local governments and delay elections, again using no or inadequate justifications, resulting in poor governance for even the basic needs of the population.

Most of the powers given to individuals are clear infringements on the people’s fundamental right to elect their representatives for the duration of their term. People don’t elect Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers directly, and they don’t decide on who will lead a political party and it does not make sense for these individuals to take away people’s rights and choices without any justification or protections against the abuse of power.

As the current political-judicial crisis highlights, these powers accorded to individuals must be either checked or taken away if Pakistan wants to avoid these crises every few years. The Constitution also creates an unpredictable election process with multiple options and conflicting requirements for the elections, resulting in unnecessary court cases.

No Constitution is perfect, and its intent and spirit must be held above written words, however, when the abuse of power is so extensive, there is a critical need now for clearly defining some provisions and removing some powers given to individuals and institutions to bring political stability.

Although Pakistan has a parliamentary system based on the Westminster model, there should not be any harm in adopting from other forms of Constitutions without changing the basic structure. The US Constitution has mostly provided a stable and predictable democracy and Pakistan can implement some of the same provisions as in the US Constitution, such as no option for dissolution for Congress, a predetermined date for elections, and expulsion clauses giving Congress the power to disqualify a member, not the courts. The recall option by the voters for any elected member, used in some states - California used that against its governor recently - can also be implemented taking care of defection clause in Pakistan’s Constitution.

Pakistan’s electoral process needs certainty. Elections should be held on a predetermined date, e.g., 2nd Sunday of October, at a fixed interval.

This can help avoid many of the political crises that Pakistan has faced during the last 50 years. The Constitution must also limit the power of the Supreme Court and hold its judges accountable if they side with the military in unconstitutional steps in the future. These changes will also empower the people and their representatives to bring more certainty to the process.

Like the Senate, the assemblies should never be dissolved, and their term should end at a predetermined date when the next assembly takes oath. There should be no option for dissolution of assemblies and local governments. The assemblies can go in a recess during the time when the caretaker setups are running the executive branch, but they can always be called back even during this time for national or provincial emergencies, such as an act of war or natural disaster causing a potential delay in elections. There should never be a discontinuity in people’s representation.

The Prime Minister or Chief Ministers should have no authority to dissolve assemblies or call early elections. If the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister loses a vote of no confidence, the assemblies should select their next leader and continue operating until the next general elections.

Similarly, provinces must not have any authority to dissolve local governments and delay their elections. Most of the issues people face in their daily lives are local in nature and a functioning and empowered local government system can address them effectively. The election commission must be empowered to hold local government elections at a fixed interval, without any outside influence.

Pakistan’s electoral process needs certainty. Elections should be held on a predetermined date, e.g., 2nd Sunday of October, at a fixed interval. There should be no provisions for changing the date for general elections, except when approved by a 2/3rd majority of the Senate due to national emergencies, as defined by the Constitution.

Pakistan should also consider a four year term for national and provincial assemblies, to remove the three years itch, and two year terms for local governments. Senate elections should also be by direct votes with 1/3rd of the electable part of Senate up for elections every two years for a 6 years term. There can be a provision for the Prime Minister to seek a vote of confidence if the ruling party or coalition loses the Senate majority, and local governments’ majority in a mid-term (2 year) election.

No courts should have the authority to disqualify or remove any elected member. Like the “expulsion” clause in the US constitution, only the Senate or assemblies can disqualify a member by a 2/3rd majority or a simple majority, depending on the offense, using the grounds defined (and modified) in Article 63.

Even though political parties issue their candidates tickets for the election, which should be changed to a primary elections process for each party candidate, it is still the people who elect the members of Parliament to represent them. As members of Parliament are ultimately held accountable by the people in their constituency, their vote should reflect the people’s desire. However, as party discipline is also important, a balancing act is required. If a member votes against the party directives on the categories defined in Article 63A(b), and that vote changes the outcome of a bill, the party head can start a “recall” process against such members by initiating a petition in member’s constituency and if 10% of the voters in the previous election agree with this recall, a new election should be held in that constituency.

If bribes or outside influence is suspected in assembly voting, the party head can ask the FIA to start investigations and the member should be disqualified for life if found guilty. These provisions will reduce horse-trading issues and allegations.

The party head should have no power to ask or force their elected party members to resign. The people elected the members, not the party head, and people’s rights should not be violated by a party head or a parliamentary party. If a member resigns for any reason other than defined by the Constitution, they have broken the people’s trust and should be disqualified to run for another election for 5 years.

Constitutional bench at the Supreme Court

There should be a five (5) member permanent bench comprising of the senior most Supreme Court judges that hear any constitutional petition. A 3-2 split decision should automatically trigger a full court review as soon as possible. In case of an attempted coup, the bench should automatically start Article 6 proceedings against the culprits. Any judge who justifies unconstitutional measures based on precedents or the doctrine of necessity must be immediately removed from the Supreme Court and charged with violation of Article 6(2). The Chief Justice’s power should also be curtailed.

As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson elucidate with various examples in their book Why Nations Fail, the rule of law is essential for countries to move from extractive to inclusive political and economic institutions, and the country can only move towards the rule of law when its ruling elite realize that their own survival is not possible without it. Pakistan has come to that stage.

The events during the past one year should make this abundantly clear that various one-man shows have destroyed the country’s institutions, resulting in frequent and multiple crises. This abuse of power must be controlled with electoral, economic, and constitutional reforms, and all relevant stakeholders need to be involved in this process of reform. Political parties, through Parliament, as a representative of people’s will, must take the lead and work together to save the country. These reforms are a must, because without them, no government will succeed and crises will keep appearing again, irrespective of who comes to power through elections. Bringing normalcy to the democratic process and a governance based on accountability and the rule of law can go a long way in making Pakistan relevant to its people and the world.