Sunday, 17 January 2010

Constitutional reforms for better democracy

In Pakistan with or without elections, the status quo of rent-seeking elite through degenerated colonial institutions continues.

Soon after any change whether elected or through a coup, our leaders begin power plays, VIP pleasures, and of course amassing personal fortunes.
It seems to me that democracy needs to be strengthened. And this can be done through a better design of a constitution.

Democracy is obtained though a system that balances and distributes power so that the community at every level controls lawmaking and the administration, execution and adjudication of laws.

Surprisingly dysfunctional governance has not produced an informed body of knowledge on constitutional reforms. By default the army and the politicians are left to think up constitutional amendments. Both of whom are neither equipped to think nor are their incentives aligned with increased democracy. And we have seen the mess they have made of the constitution.

Perhaps, it is time civil society carefully looked at the design of democracy.
Currently, our system seems to be producing anything but democratic governance: a fragmented individualized political parties lacking ideas and expertise; incumbent governments running roughshod over parliament, provincial governments, and even the financial system; legislators with neither the skills, nor the inclination for legislation merely rubber stamping executive proposals. Often even a quorum in parliament is not achieved! The judiciary that has been compromised more often than politicians and dictators have read a book. Meanwhile, corruption has been increasing and law and order (security of life and property) declining.
It seems to me that new rules are required that allow capable people to come forward, and induce them to behave in a manner consistent with their mandate.

I am sure our learned political scientists and other thinkers can come up with alternative proposals for strengthening or institutions. Here I outline some obvious ideas for constitutional reform to hopefully generate some interest in this neglected area.

One starting point could be limiting government patronage possibilities. One initiative could be limiting the size of the cabinet would also limit political deal-making. Governments use to cabinet positions to purchase legislators. The creation of a ministerial position should require parliamentary review as it requires expenditure of resources.
In the same vein the idea of the Prime Minister keeping key positions such as the Finance or Defense for his or her self would also be outlawed. That is just too much concentration of power.

Independent and autonomous institutions are an important check to the power of the executive. Legislature, regulatory bodies, watchdog institutions and the judiciary must be totally independent of the executive. This independence must be jealously guarded and maintained by independent boards to prevent capture by the executive. The Prime Minister or the president must not be the sole appointing authority for all key positions of responsibility in such autonomous agencies. By the same token bureaucrats should not serve ex officio on boards of independent agencies.

Why should all judicial and senior civilian appointments (secretaries, IGs DIGs etc) not be reviewed by the senate or open committee to ensure the fitness of a candidate for the position? A review process examines competency and the moral character of candidates. It also puts all on notice that they are not merely beholden to the executive.
The term political party could be better defined to prevent ego-cults. Clearly parties should a known policy program, large national membership, and well-defined internal governance structures (such as periodic internal party elections and open party conventions). Perhaps minimum voter support by some registration process could be required. Parties could also be required to pledge rather a large deposit before election. This deposit would be forfeit if a minimum number of its candidates are not successful.
This brings us to campaign finance where we have no guidelines in Pakistan. It is commonly known that some candidates bought their way into parliament. Why not limit campaign finance or tax visible campaign funding.

All candidates and all parties could be required to maintain open accounts for life. Their tax returns and any direct and indirect financial interests should at all times be public information.

Candidates, especially the successful ones, must show an acceptable distance from any business interests that they might have. It has always amazed me why when making ministerial appointments, why we do not look at potential conflicts of interest. For example why are industrialists appointed as commerce and industries ministers?

Much of the antagonism in our politics arises from the monopoly on power and patronage by the party in power. Ways can be found for the two parties to cooperate. For example, key appointments regulatory bodies and judiciary could be made by bipartisan committees. A glaring example could be PEMRA the workings of which would be enormously improved if it were run by a bipartisan committee. Of course the information ministry should go.

Many countries have experimented with mandating term limits (for all offices including tenures of MNAs and MPAs) to allow new people and new ideas entry into the system. In Pakistan where the electorate is beholden through feudal and other relations, term limits could be useful to ensuring that turnover among politicians. Or for that matter why should there be a 5 year term and both federal and provincial elections held together. A shorter term (say 3 years) and staggered elections (provincial elections midway into the term of the national government) would be more of a check on the executive.

We have not even begun to consider alternative election design mechanisms (say proportional representation). We could also consider a greater use of referendums directly to the population on key issues. And of course NRB decentralization initiative needs to be strengthened.
Ideas such as these need to be seriously considered to design a constitution for inducing good leadership. Unless we develop a vigorous debate on constitutional reform, the subject will be left to self-serving machinations of bureaucrats, politicians and generals.