The dissolution of the national assembly has not been automatically followed by that of the provincial assemblies as in 1988 and 1990. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s argument is that there is no reason to dissolve the provincial assemblies because they are functioning constitutionally. Mr Khan noted that the decision to dissolve parliaments could not be based on the “whims or fancies” of anyone.
In effect, the President is saying that the dissolution of the national assembly is constitutional while that of the provincial assemblies would be illegitimate.
This is an indefensible position. As a matter of fact, if it is made to stick, it is likely to further erode the credibility of the President, the Supreme Court and th political system.
In 1990, President Ishaq Khan dismissed the national assembly and, like Gen Zia, allowed the Punjab and Balochistan CMs to ask their respective Governors to dissolve their assemblies. But, unlike Zia, he ordered the Governors of Sindh and NWFP to sack their pro-PPP assemblies. When Sindh Governor Fakhruddin G Ibrahim didn’t comply with his orders, President Ishaq replaced him overnight by Mahmood Haroon who promptly did the needful. In fact, after the NWFP assembly was restored by the Peshawar High Court, the Supreme Court was called upon to reverse the decision in 30 minutes flat, a judicial feat hitherto unaccomplished in the annals of law. In the Governors’ orders dissolving all the provincial assemblies, whether on the demand of the Chief Minister or the President, the reasons advanced were neither separate nor different from those relating to the dissolution of the national assembly. This was most intriguing. Neither the Punjab nor the Balochistan assembly was in any constitutional trouble. Both chief ministers enjoyed a majority in their houses. There was no pending vote of no-confidence against them. Yet both acted on the “whims and fancies” of the President.
President Ishaq has again made a constitutional innovation, this time by leaving the provincial assemblies altogether intact. Unlike in 1990, he has allowed former Speaker Mian Manzoor Wattoo to indulge in the worst form of horse-trading to depose Mr Nawaz Sharif’s Punjab government. If this isn’t patently unconstitutional, we don’t know what is. We recall how, in the 1990 Bhutto case, the Supreme Court ignored the allegations of corruption but upheld the charge of horse-trading as being decidedly un-constitutional. Dragging MPs off to the stables in Changa Manga or Swat is surely no different from herding them together in Bhurban. It is also noteworthy how, even before Mr Ghulam Haider Wyne’s ouster, the Punjab administration had already been prodded by Islamabad to switch sides and put him on the mat. Is this any way for President Ishaq to “go by the book”?
The constitutional legitimacy of Mr Muzaffar Shah’s Sindh government is in even greater doubt. Of its original 100 members, 28 resigned some months ago. The PDA claims it has the resignations of over 40 in its pocket, which leaves Mr Shah with a paltry 32 MPs. Yet President Ishaq has deemed fit to personally take a trip to Karachi and vow to keep the assembly alive. By artificial resuscitation, that is.
Why is President Ishaq making these constitutional somersaults to prop up the provincial assemblies? The reason is obvious enough: he wants to make sure that neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif is able to become prime minister or dominate governments in any of the provinces.
The President can’t eat his cake and have it too. He cannot one day side with Nawaz Sharif to keep Benazir Bhutto out and then side with Benazir Bhutto to do the same to Nawaz Sharif and hope to get away with it. In fact, he has no business taking sides with anyone. It is up the people of Pakistan to elect their leaders and learn to live them with.
Pakistan has become the laughing stock of the world, a veritable banana republic. Already, people are cursing President Ishaq for removing two governments in the space of only 33 months. They are also denouncing Nawaz Sharif for bringing the country to its current impasse and Benazir Bhutto for trying to extract mileage out of the crisis. There are grave misgivings too about the proclaimed “cleanliness” of the interim government and greater still about the promised elections. More ominously, such unease is also manifest among the upper echelons of the army, despite reassuring noises from the COAS. Pakistanis are saying that we’ve hit rock bottom only to discover that it’s quicksand.
The solution is obvious enough, even to a layman. All provincial governments and local bodies are dirty and unrepresentative, hence they must be swiftly despatched. Caretaker governments should be spotlessly clean. Elections must be ruthlessly fair. The people should elect new representatives at every level. The new government must sit across the table with the opposition and hammer out a system of fairer representation, accountability and balance of powers between the offices of the president and the prime minister. Ghulam Ishaq Khan should put democracy on the rails again and then call it a day. It has been a long and fruitful innings for him. He should retire with some honour before he sinks further into the mud.