18th amendment: looking beyond the rhetoric

Published: June 17, 2010

If a parliamentarian feels that his party is supporting something not quite right, he is bound by constitution not to object. PHOTO: APP

The media limelight apparently has shifted away from the 18th amendment bit too soon. While it had been the topic of heated discussions and talk shows, the getting over was quick. It was particularly surprising considering how PPP and PML(N) tried to score points after passing this amendment in the assembly and hailed it as a grand success and that how absolutely otherwise it was. Once we’re past the rhetoric, it is not too difficult to discern how the amendment brings us barely any good as a nation and how it sneaks back the clauses most detrimental to democracy under the guise of democracy itself.

If we simply review the effects this amendment shall have on the democratic process in the coming years, that will give us the measure of it’s importance. The most hailed part of this amendment is the doing away with 58 2(b). The bane of this clause has long haunted the corridors of power for elected representatives, including Prime Ministers. And the objection cited to it is very well placed, since it literally renders the entire democratic structure vulnerable to Presidential moods and through that, allows for the involvement of other back-door actors including the GHQ.

In that context, the roll-back of this clause indeed served greatly in restoring the powers of the parliament and its head. But did it really? When we look to the other implications of the package, it barely seems so. Sub clause 4 of Article 17, which had been formerly restored under Mr. Musharraf’s regime, putting an end to one-person shows within political parties, has also been quietly shelved in the current 18th amendment. The deleted clause states that “every political party shall, subject to law, hold intra-party elections to elect its office-bearers and party leaders.” It’s removal, in simple words, means that a party head can stay at the seat as long as he sees fit and never needs to hold an election within the party to see if the members wish otherwise. Practically, this is highly desirable for both PPP, PML (N) who primarily are run as family businesses, at least as far as the top appointments are concerned. Many other parties too fall within this realm, including ANP, MQM etc where ‘once a party head, always a party head’ rule applies regardless of how democratic the outfit becomes. Such hereditary politics reeks of a sheer hypocrisy on the parts of the political parties. But their common consent over this perhaps can account for the rather passing importance given to this clause which, in word and deed, is highly detrimental to democracy.

That’s not all. Here’s something more to depict how in-line are the other amendments with the usual democracy magniloquence our politicians often deploy. An amendment to Article 63 A implies that if the party head feels that a certain parliamentarian of his party is somehow no longer fit to represent the party, he can write to the speaker and get him removed. Admitted that a measure of some sort is needed to stop floor-crossing and horse-trading on the floor. But that can be quite conveniently accomplished without vesting yet another absolute power with a party head, most appropriately through the parliamentary leader of that party. The direct implication of this is that if a parliamentarian feels that his party is supporting something not quite right, he is bound by constitution not to object for if he does, it shall have repercussions. Add to this picture the other immediately relevant clause of removing the obligation of intra-party elections and you realize what mighty powers this amendment places with the party heads – to name two of them, Mr. Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari.

When viewed now, the annulment of 58 2 (b) too becomes meaningless since if you take powers from the President and that person is also the party head, that little changes anything. He/She can still effectively affect all the decisions of his party within the parliament and enjoy a rather safe distance from the entire process by staying aloof in the Presidential palace. Not only that, he can’t be removed from his Presidential appointment either since he is the party head and needs not hold elections or seek consensus within party for the continuance of his term as long as his tenure allows.

Once you give a fleeting analysis to the whole 18th amendment package, it becomes quite clear that the reservations of judiciary over it are quite plausible, cited repeatedly by SC. But how far can judiciary interfere in constitutional amendments is still unclear and whether or not it has the right to define what is in-line with the ‘basic structure’ of our constitution remains a question yet to be answered. It is also quite apparent that the main players of this game have found the gray area where their interests coincide and have happily constructed the amendment about it, creating the illusions of ‘restoring’ democracy and reaching a historic consensus, both false and misplaced.

Media, too, needs to stop giving its token of approval to such artificial measures which rather work more towards the weakening of democracy. The lack of criticism has seriously contributed to a public acceptance of the aforementioned amendments which is based on part-ignorance and part-misinformation. And media’s role is precisely to thwart the shaping of such faulty perceptions by actively exposing the story behind the story which, in this case, is certainly a rather disillusioning one.

P.S. A relevant case, that of President’s Zardari’s dual office, is underway in the Lahore High Court. Petitions have been filed against him since he holds the office of both President of Pakistan and the head of PPP. And, in the light of past interpretations of clause 41(1) by SC, as in the case of Mr. Nawaz Sharif vs The President in 1993, the President is morally bound not to have such position which may compromise his neutral stance on national affairs. However, whether the ruling comes in the President’s favor or not, the party-heads’ powers still stay unquestioned.

salman.latif

Salman Latif

A blogger who blogs at salmanlatif.wordpress.com/ and tweets @salmanlateef

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