Why not a 20th amendment? - Tasneem Noorani - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The quest to find on alternative to this government continues. Even the president has admitted that there is talk of a takeover by “technocrats.” But is an extra-constitutional change the answer to our problems?

Constitutionally, the only method possible for a change is the courts passing an order making the president ineligible to hold office. But even then all that will change is that Bilawal House will become the seat of power. The style of governance is unlikely to change.

The major drawback of any extra-constitutional measure is that these three years we suffered in the name of democracy will have been wasted. We will be back to square one, making the change no different from the previous ones in the nineties, apart from giving the PPP a martyr status. If extra-constitutional measures are out, and the PML-N is comfortable with the status quo, as is obvious, then what is the way forward to put this uncertainty to rest? There is one solution which, in my view, takes care of most of the issues which are an impediment to a way forward.

The government’s tenure is five years in our Constitution, while no democratic government has ever completed a five-year term in our history. Even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who ruled for five-and-a-half years, ruled as civilian prime minister for less than four, from 14 Aug, 1973, to July 5, 1977. In the fifties, before Ayub’s martial law, the average term of office of an elected government was around one year. In the nineties, when the PPP and the PML-N played a game of musical chairs, the average tenure of government was two years. In the next decade how can we expect a democratic government to last five years?

The logical evolution process would make a three-year term more compatible with our political development. We are still a politically immature and impatient lot and five-year term for a government is incompatible with our temperament. The US president has a four-year term.

If not three (the politician will hit the ceiling at this suggestion) our term of government should be four years. If we have 19 amendments to the Constitution, why can’t we have a 20th amendment? The advantages of a four-year term will be manifold. Firstly, the next elections will be due in eleven months, which will divert the attention of the political and other forces from finding ways to get rid of the present government to participation in the next elections. This would stabilise the current uncertain situation, where there is a new rumour every week about a likely new setup. Secondly, the need for looking for an extra-constitutional method or in-house change will be obviated. These four years spent in experimenting with democracy will be counted as time spent in the development of democracy in the country. Thirdly, it will take the pressure off the government which can happily concentrate on governance rather than looking over its shoulder all the time. Fourthly, and most important, it will make the term of government more realistic and reduce the chances of an extra-constitutional intervention in the future.

I have no doubt that such a proposal will be opposed by most politicians, because they will argue that elections have become very expensive and therefore elections should be held every five years rather than four. If the tenure of government is reduced, perhaps the political aspirants of the future will adjust their expenditures accordingly. Some people will say four years is not enough to execute the policies of a new government. One may ask which strategy, policy or project of the current government, in power for three years, is awaiting implementation and will be adversely affected by reduction in term? Four years is adequate, as seen in a number of democracies, to conceive, implement and consolidate most initiatives. If, however, we are going to link the tenure of government to the gestation period of building a dam, we’ll have to fix the tenure at ten years.

The response of the PPP is likely to be, why such a proposal in their term? Well, one can say that it offers the party a chance for a graceful exit or coming back again to power for another four years. It may even be an opportune to go back to the voter earlier, because one year later pubic may have become that much more disappointed with the government. In any case, a four-year term will reduce the chance of the government being thrown out. Unless the PPP wants that, because it can then claim that it was not able to deliver because its tenure was cut short.

The PML-N seems complicit with the PPP in letting things drift the way they are, because they are enjoying unbridled power in Punjab, their main, and perhaps only, base. With the indisposition of Mian Nawaz Sharif, the inclination for an early election for the PML-N may be even less welcome.

Despite the likely reluctance of the major political players in the field, the logical and the long-lasting solution is to have the constitutional tenure of the government more in line with the nation’s temperament and stage of political development. If we let things slide the way they are doing currently, we may have to restart the process of rebuilding Pakistan, from square one.

The writer is a former federal secretary. Email: tasneem.noorani@tnassociates.net

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=41109&Cat=9

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