58(2)(b) and all that
While on a visit to the IDPs in DI Khan, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in reply to newsmen’s questions that President Asif Ali Zardari was willing to part with the powers under Article 58(2)(b) and on the appointment of the services chiefs. For himself, the prime minister was not interested in the power to dissolve the assemblies. Nor did he regard the power to appoint the services chiefs an issue of burning concern since the incumbents were already in place.
Article 58(2)(b) was first inducted into the Constitution through the 8th Amendment in 1985, a devil’s bargain to persuade General Ziaul Haq to restore some semblance of civilian rule. Some circles argued then, and subsequently, that the article was a safety valve to prevent recurring military coups and martial laws. In the event, the article was used three times in the eight years between 1988 and 1996. Its axe fell not only on democratically elected governments of both the PPP and the PML-N, but even General Zia’s handpicked prime minister, Mr. Junejo. Far from its touted efficacy as a safety valve against martial law, it proved to be an autocratic piece of legislation that afforded successive presidents the power, and therefore the temptation, to interrupt democratic development and the stabilisation of the system through repeated use. Eventually this very frequency caused the article to be questioned in the corridors of power and even in the Supreme Court (SC). The 17th Amendment, flawed as it is, provided that the use of the article would henceforth be judiciable before the apex court. The implication was that if the SC found that the president had not applied his mind and had wilfully dismissed an elected government, he would probably have to go. A check was thus placed on the arbitrary misuse of this power. The democratic forces however, had always rejected the article in toto as violative of all democratic norms.
The question has assumed importance once again in the backdrop of the sustained campaign in some sections of the media and by some political parties against the person of the president and the performance of the PPP-led government. While criticism of the performance of any elected government is in conformity with democratic norms, the campaign in question has assumed an altogether sinister and virulent character that smacks alarmingly of similar campaigns in the past to destabilise and finally overthrow democracy. One need not hold any brief for the present incumbents of high office but nevertheless decry the motivated campaign that seems to be underway, with allegations and innuendo replacing factual and responsible media practice and political responsibility.
After suffering these slings and arrows in relatively feeble fashion to date, an apologetic stance informed by some unease within the ruling party ranks over its government’s inept performance, the PPP Central Executive Committee (CEC) and the president have come out swinging. The latter described those wanting his ouster as living in a fool’s paradise, while the CEC vowed to defend the president and the government with more vigour than ha s been in evidence so far. All this is of course the very stuff of democracy. However, the CEC also recognized that public perception about the government as a whole being rudderless was being fuelled by the inept performance of some ministers and advisers, some of whom may be up for the chop in the impending cabinet reshuffle.
The president and the government seriously need to re-invent themselves if a debacle is not to be our fate once again. Fortunately for the incumbents, the main opposition party, the PML-N, despite breathing fire and brimstone on chosen issues every now and again, does not seem inclined to upset the applecart. That provides the political space for the government to rehabilitate its credibility. But this space is not unlimited and time may well be running out. The sooner the government demonstrates a positive political direction and policy wisdom, the better for it.