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Challenge for new president

In these times where all staff must appear to be efficiently contributing to the corporate cause, it can be asked what purpose the president serves in the state of Pakistan.

Pakistan has just elected a new president by an overwhelming majority. By comparison he is hardly required to be striving to achieve a balance between ‘his’ party and the other political groups à la Asif Zardari.

This was the task Zardari assigned himself even though it is debatable whether, bar the legends doing the rounds about his political acumen, he was able to exercise too much of a positive influence on the proceedings.

That was an attractive position to begin with. The presidential office held appeal at the time because Zardari was going to replace Gen Pervez Musharraf, who had wielded all authority for almost nine years.

And after Zardari Sahib abdicated powers in favour of the parliament commandeered by the prime minister, he could still work through Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf. But he could employ the proxy due to his position as PPP head although he had to go to great lengths to try and convince the courts that he was a non-partisan head of state.

Still there was at one point in time quite a lot of debate over the issue and there were suggestions that Zardari was much better off getting himself elected to the National Assembly and, following that, as prime minister. The PPP chief could resist that since he was confident enough of his authority over the party and settled into the seat of president.

Zardari was later hailed by his party men as one head of state who had voluntarily transferred his powers under the Constitution to parliament. In reality, he retained his hold over the party and government and utilised the services of close relatives to maintain his links with the affairs of both.

As the PPP handed over the baton to old running mate PML-N, the post of president understandably lost the sheen it had acquired during the Musharraf and Zardari years.

The presence of Mian Nawaz Sharif, the ‘N’ personified, obviously left little doubt that Zardari’s replacement in the presidency could indulge in or advise on or dictate. That really narrowed it down to a president who was there to perform his duties strictly in accordance with the role assigned to him in the much-amended Constitution.

The Constitution says the president of Pakistan, as the head of state, shall represent the unity of the republic. There is little else of substance that is required of the president, who is primarily there to provide the state’s seal to the prime minister’s deeds.

There is one provision which authorises the Pakistan president to pardon convicts. That is an important provision where a president can make a real impact on lives. But amid reports that the PML-N is considering lifting an informal embargo on carrying out death sentences, it doesn’t seem likely that its nominee would be bothered about mercy pleas — in the immediate future at least.

The unity of the republic is of utmost significance, always so but particularly in current Pakistani circumstances where two of the country’s four provinces are under the rule of non-PML-N parties while the PML-N runs the centre and Punjab and is a partner in the Balochistan coalition government.

Come to think of it, perhaps it was this aspect that had the PML-N pushing for advancement of the date for the presidential vote originally set by the Election Commission.

Too much time could have underlined the diversity in governance within the republic and could lead to forming an impression contrary to the dictates of unity.

In other republics, heads of state do perform functions that are not necessarily written into the constitution. Monarchs or presidents, in a democracy they can be spotted forwarding causes and trying to shape popular tastes.

Gen Musharraf, an all-powerful ruler, did attempt to contribute towards shaping cultural preferences by letting known his biases, particularly in the early stages of his stint.

Asif Zardari tried to act as a patron of tastes of sorts but his effort could hardly penetrate the thick walls he was imprisoned in to reach the people.

Mamnoon Hussain has an office and must now find a vocation for himself — beyond inaugurating a chance state facility and indulging in the occasional decorative exercise of bestowing a few medals on the deserving and not deserving. That’s a real challenge as he stands by the side of a dynasty which has so many clamouring for the honours.

The media has so far been rather quiet on which assignments it wants president-elect Hussain to take up.

In Lahore it has been comparatively much more forthcoming in hailing the arrival of Chaudhry Sarwar back to Pakistan and as the new governor of Punjab. It appears, however, that while the governor and the party in power at the centre have changed, the argument applied during the previous arrangement has not undergone necessary modifications.

One particularly constructive report after the oath-taking ceremony of Chaudhry Sarwar said and then reiterated over and over how he could be the bridge between the rulers and the ruled.

This theory was definitely a leftover from the previous term where as the PPP nominee in a PML-N governed province, the Punjab governor was thought of as providing some kind of a balance to a very active chief minister Shahbaz Sharif.

Both Salmaan Taseer and to a lesser extent Latif Khosa were supposedly running the PPP window in Punjab that connected the people to Islamabad and to President Asif Zardari.

That route is no more needed, with the PML-N ruling from both Islamabad and Lahore. Instead the governor house in Lahore is free to make its own inventions and innovations to stay relevant.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Asha’ar Rehman, "Challenge for new president," Dawn. 2013-08-09.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , Political parties , Political issues , Political process , Government-Pakistan , Democracy , Asif Ali Zardari , Mamnoon Hussain , CM Shahbaz Sharif , Ch Sarwar , Gen Musharraf , Yousuf Raza Gilani , Pakistan , PPP , PMLN