Towards An Egalitarian Federation By Tahir Ali

Political and financial autonomy for provinces is the only way to remove the sense of deprivation and alienation of the smaller provinces, but how can that be possible in the present mechanism where Punjab alone suffices for the formation of the federal government

In first glance, the issue may seem outdated. It may well be rejected as anti-Punjab propaganda or an attempt to create new controversies amid too many others. Rather, it is a genuine attempt to highlight the problem of disparity among the federating units of Pakistan which not only goes against the spirit of federation but has also spread hatred against Punjab in smaller provinces.

Pakistani parliament comprises two chambers: The lower chamber called the National Assembly and the upper chamber called the Senate. The former is elected by direct universal suffrage and represents the citizens of Pakistan. The latter is elected indirectly and represents the federating units of Pakistan.

However, like most other bicameral parliaments (with the notable exception of the Italian Parliament), the Pakistani legislature is also not egalitarian.

Most of the powers are vested in the Assembly. It has the sole authority to elect the federal government and pass the budget. But the problem is that its membership is based on population and Punjab enjoys an absolute 55 per cent majority in it while the other three provinces, the federal capital and Fata account for 45 per cent of the body’s members.

The May11 elections proved that a comprehensive victory in Punjab — one of the four federation units in Pakistan — could enable a party to govern the entire federation irrespective of the collective mandate in the other three federating units — Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Punjab dominates the country’s electoral arena and accounts for 148 off the directly-elected 272 seats in the Assembly. The PML-N won primarily from Punjab bagging 129 seats (including 17 independents) there and winning only 16 from other provinces.

“Even if Pukhutuns, Balochs and Sindhis vote for one party, they can’t compete with Punjab. The ratio is 45:55. That’s why the Punjabi leaders don’t need the help of any other province. Only Punjab is sufficient for them. They win election in Punjab and govern the entire Pakistan,” writes a blogger on

www.pashtoonsforum.com.

While the PPPP, the PTI and other parties won most of the seats in the other federating units and would represent them in the Assembly, the question is will they, even if collectively, be able to block any law that doesn’t suit their constituency? Another question arises: Is it proper and compatible with the spirit of the federation to give so much leverage to a federating unit against its other counterparts?

Political and financial autonomy for provinces is the only way to remove the sense of deprivation and alienation of the smaller provinces, but how can that be possible in the present mechanism where one province — Punjab — alone suffices for the formation of the federal government. Doesn’t it mean giving undue leverage to it vis-à-vis others? Obviously, when Punjab alone could suffice for capturing the highest slot at Islamabad, every party necessarily and naturally will try to please and win over its electorate at the neglect of other provinces. It explains why there is frequent resort to governor’s rule, palace intrigues and vote of no-confidence to snatch the throne in Punjab.

This doesn’t mean that the financial share of Punjab that has the biggest population and, therefore, needs huge funds for development in health, education and other social sectors should be slashed. It is neither fair nor desired. Neither this writer wants any reduced membership for Punjab in the Assembly. It should have the same number of seats there, even more if needed.

But my point is why can’t they have equal weight and the same authority, power and role in electing the federal government as has been constitutionally ordained for the election of the president and Senate members?

To strengthen the federation, to make the system/constitution egalitarian and to discourage the secessionist tendencies and growing discontent in smaller provinces, provinces need to be given equal weight in the assembly for the formation of the federal government, though they may retain their respective number of seats therein.

Surprisingly, the issue of disparity among the federating units in the ‘king-maker’ Assembly was neglected at the time of passage of 19th and 20th constitutional amendments. There have been demands that to reduce the clout of Punjab and to bring parity among provinces, it should be divided into two or three provinces. It is, however, doubtful the step would solve the problem.

Detractors would argue that the Senate is there with equal representation for the provinces. But it not only has no financial powers but also has no role in election of the prime minister, though it has some ministerial slots in the cabinet.

My point is when in the election of the president and the senate members, all the four provinces have equal share, the difference of their strength in parliament notwithstanding, why this can’t be arranged in the election of prime minister of the country?

In the federal and parliamentary system, normally the second/upper chamber of the parliament is introduced to give equal representation to the federating units. But it must have enough powers to safeguard the interests of federating units against imbalances in their membership in the lower/popularly-elected chamber.

The 1956 and 1962 constitutions of the country too were based on the principle of parity between the then West and East Pakistan and both accounted for half of the membership in the National Assembly. But it was flawed as it gave equal membership to both the wings instead of equal weight to them.

The principle of parity and One Unit was introduced by the West Pakistan politicians with mala fide intentions to bring the two wings at par with each other though East Pakistan accounted for over 56 per cent of the country’s population and therefore deserved greater membership in the Assembly. Against the parity principle, it was not followed in other state spheres such as allocation of defence personnel, equipment and financial assets etc.

Faced with a sense of deprivation and secessionist tendencies amongst its smaller units, Pakistan can/must suit its parliamentary/federal structure to its own needs.

The new parliament should initiate constitutional amendments in this regard. The votes of all provinces in the Assembly should have equal weight in the election of the prime minister just as in the case of the election of the president of Pakistan.

This could be done several ways. One, by giving equal weight to provinces though the present membership of Punjab and other provinces may be retained or increased.

Two, by giving the federating units equal membership in the National Assembly but that would be an injustice to Punjab which deserves greater representation in the National Assembly for its large population.

Three, Senate, with its present limited powers, is of little help to guard against provincial imbalances. It should be made more powerful, especially vesting it with financial powers.

Four, by electing the prime minister the way the president of Pakistan is elected these days where all provinces have equal weight despite the difference of membership in their respective assemblies. Five, by changing the mode of election of the prime minister from the present indirect election to direct popular election.

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