National Security Council:
Pakistan’s Political System
Columnist Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
discusses the need for NSC.
Since late 1950s, every military ruler of Pakistan had tried to transform himself into a civilian president. They employed different constitutional strategies to reintroduce the civil rule and perpetuate their policies. President General Pervez Musharraf’s foremost concern is to ensure the continuity of his government and policies. Despite the opposition of political parties, the military government is firm to introduce some amendments in the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. These amendments are considered vital for the stability of Pakistan’s political system. While announcing the election schedule on August 14, 2001, the President indicated that he would introduce a few constitutional amendments to facilitate a safe journey towards democracy. If we go by constitutional historical precedence, the new parliament would endorse his amendments in the constitution. What kind of constitutional amendments could be expected? The focus of the future amendments would be to provide the legitimacy to the acts of the present military government, constitutionalizing the role of National Security Council (NSC), and above all introduce the doctrine of check and balance in the constitution. So that, the future Presidents and Prime Ministers of Pakistan, should be refrained to govern the state unconstitutionally.
President General Pervez Musharraf, along with the think tank of experts has revived the idea of the NSC1. The following discussion will hypothetically outline the structure of the NSC. The suggested structure and powers of NSC would not be final. In fact, the issue has not been debated properly. Therefore, it remains a teasing concept susceptible to a variety of interpretations. As a new concept in the polity of Pakistan, it would continue to be defined, redefined and refined. The plan of the NSC will be followed by an analysis whether this institution assists the democratic forces or strengthens the non-democratic forces in the country.
The demand to constitute a National Security Council (NSC) institution in Pakistan has been repeatedly raised by various quarters of the society, including statesmen, politicians, higher civil-military bureaucrats, intellectuals, etc. At the theoretical level, it’s not a new concept. During the President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq tenure, the debate was initiated for the constitution and establishment of the NSC. At that time, the idea didn’t materialize, because the political forces opposed it. The consensus reached on the promulgation of the famous Eighth Amendment in the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. The Eighth Amendment, particularly, the Article 58, clause 2 (b) of the 1973 Constitution provided the President of Pakistan discretionary powers, more extensive than those normally provided in parliamentary form of government. Among other things, the Constitution stipulated that the President is responsible for judging the harmonious functioning of the Majlisa-e-Shoora and Head of Government. Thus concerning political stability and harmony in the country, all Presidents adopted an activist role, till the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in the 1973 Constitution.
The end of the discretionary power of the President to dissolve National Assembly reduced its status to the titular head. The fourteenth Amendment in the 1973 Constitution had further enhanced the powers of the Prime Minister. The consolidation of powers in one office led Pakistan into another national political crisis. Consequently, on October 12, 1999 armed forces of Pakistan once again intervened, political institutions were suspended and political governments were toppled. The armed forces took this extra-constitutional step because for that of situation, the 1973 Constitution provided no solution. This established that; firstly, democratically elected leaders have failed to govern the state according to the democratic norms. Secondly, the 1973 Constitution lacks the system of checks and balance or to bar the emergence of Fascist leader. Finally, Pakistan needs an adequate apolitical institution, named NSC, whose members will not be the trusted advisers of the President or Prime Minister.
Objective of NSC
The NSC’s role in Pakistan’s political system is to foster collegiality among national institutions. It will serve as a coordinating, integrative, and supervisory body. Its members shall be responsible for making collective decisions on the important national issues, such as the nuclear weapons of Pakistan, the fate of the National Assembly during the domestic political crisis and, matters that generate animosity among the provinces of Pakistan. The Head of State — the President of Pakistan shall use the Council as an institution of controlling and managing the rivalry/competition among the organs of the state.
Statutory membership of NSC shall prevent it from becoming a forum of one
political party or one national institution. Despite the fact that the NSC
shall not be the legislative organ of the state, it is not strictly in
conformity with the notions of Westminster form of Parliamentary
Democracy. But it is probably the answer in our country, where democracy
has been distorted, resulting in the dismissal of five elected governments
and the formation of four caretaker governments and one military in the
last twelve years. Moreover, one cannot ignore the reality that the1973
Constitution does not promulgate the true norms of parliamentary
democracy. The NSC will minimize to a great extent all constitutional and
unconstitutional steps taken by some self-serving politicians to amass
personal power and to misuse it to the detriment of the state and the
people. In addition it will end the military coup and army-backed
Hypothetical Members of NSC
The NSC shall derive its authority from the
constitution of Pakistan. Its members’ position shall not depend on the
will of the head of state or government.
Therefore, it shall have permanent statutory members, once the
democratic political system will be reintroduced.
Non- statutory members
Depending on the agenda of the meeting, other
concerned persons shall be invited in the meeting of the NSC. However,
their advice shall not be binding on the council.
It will be useful here to look at some of the
reservations and clarifications for an informed judgement on whether the
NSC would stabilize the democratic system or undermine the role of
politically elected elite in Pakistan.
Reservations about NSC
Pakistan is already victim of many kind of governance
drawbacks — brutal political messiahs, liberal jargons of authoritarian
leadership, corrupt institutions, etc. The establishment of NSC increases
the political problems in the state. It will impede the prosperity of
democratic political culture in Pakistan.
In democratic political system armed forces are under
the civilian control. There is no need to involve armed forces in the
policy — making in Pakistan. Therefore, it seems irrational and
undemocratic to give representation to the armed forces in the NSC.
The NSC will empower the armed forces to interfere
frequently into the political process of the country. Which will undermine
the democratic system of governance. Consequently, it will raise a hue and
cry across the country. In fact, the masses don’t approve the
interference of the armed forces in the decision-making process of
The NSC will institutionalize the armed forces’
dominant power and blocks any move toward democratization. Through it, the
armed forces can impose their will on parliament and the government. In
addition, the inclusion of armed forces representative in the NSC will
provide upper hand to them in national affairs. This negates the spirit of
The politics should be left to civilians who are
democratically elected and inducted in offices. The armed forces top brass
that would be included in the NSC does not have the expertise in
socioeconomic or political affair of the country. How could they provide
an expert advice on such issues?
It seems that the NSC would be imposed through
coercive means. It would not reflect a political consensus.
The NSC will impinge on the powers of the elected
political elite and make it handicap in the performance of its duty.
These problems are due to the non-commitment of
Pakistani political leadership with the spirit and principles of
democracy. They always govern the state as their personal fiefdoms. In
fact, Pakistan’s political system lacks the modus operandi of checks and
balance. In order to put the house in order, Pakistan needs an
institution, which will check the totalitarian/authoritarian style of
It’s a misperception that armed forces role in the
policy-making is very limited or have no role in the democratic set-up.
Even in the mature democracies, such as United States, France, etc., armed
forces are important pressure groups. They take significant shares in the
policy-making and may have veto power over crucial public issues. For
instance, the US history reveals that the head of state (President) in the
US have throughout the nuclear age failed to consult with or disclose the
occasions on which the use of nuclear weapons was seriously contemplated2.
Similarly, the armed forces have always occupied an important and
privileged place on Pakistan’s political landscape. Their role in the
decision-making became inevitable, especially, after the nuclearization of
Pakistan. In addition one cannot ignore the ground realities. The armed
forces of Pakistan assist the civilian governments in performance of the
administrative tasks. The civilian governments seek their help
in addressing the problems such as controlling the law and order,
coping with the natural calamities, etc.
The military in Pakistan had always sought to find
the appropriate formula to enhance democracy in the country and try to
support the ‘non-armed
forces involvement solution’ to the political crisis. For instance, the
armed forces dominated the polity during the 1977-1988 interregnum. In
1988, the armed forces returned to their barracks. The armed forces
participation in the state affairs was limited to their role in the
defence sector or to some extent where the civilian governments need its
assistance, according to the constitution. The erroneous policies of
political leaders generate political crisis that threatens the survival of
Pakistan and necessitates the interventions of the armed forces.
Ironically, political leaders appeal army to take over. In 1997, for
example, Ashgar Khan the leader of PNA, appealed to the army to take
over3. History reveals that people welcomed the armed forces decisions to
govern the state in 1958, 1969. 1977 and 1999. On October 12, 1999 when
Pakistan’s army chief suddenly took over the government, popular relief
at the coup reflects the failure of four successive democratically elected
governments over 11 years4.
The NSC will not be the copy of the Turkish NSC,
which is made up of six high-ranking military officers and five civilians.
Secondly, the Turkish NSC is empowered to examine all the affairs of
state, whether relating to domestic or to foreign policy. Its
deliberations are never made public, and even when decisions are
announced, they are presented as “recommendations” to the government5.
Whereas, the Pakistani NSC will be dominated by the civilians. Secondly,
it will be empowered to deal with limited issues. In brief, it will not be
the shadow government like Irans’ ‘Council of Guardians’6.
As a historical generalization military-bureaucratic
involvement in politics took on two forms. There were phases when the
civil-military oligarchy interfered covertly and when this proved to be
inadequate for their purposes they intervened directly into the body
politics. It was in the 1950s when these parameters were forged and they
continue influence Pakistani politics today. The NSC formation will end
covert/overt involvement of this nexus. Moreover, civilians do not have
the expertise in nuclear affairs.
The NSC shall derive its powers from the constitution of Pakistan. For this purpose an amendment shall be made in the constitution. Notably, Article 238 of the 1973 Constitution states that the constitution may be amended by the act of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament). According to Article 239, the amendment bill requires not less than two-thirds of total membership of the Parliament approval.
The basic strategy of Pakistan’s politicians can be described as power aggrandizement. Power gives them both personal satisfaction and the means to promote vested interests. The NSC shall not encroach in the sphere of their powers. It only assists the elected government in the performance of its constitutional responsibilities. Moreover, it would save the parliamentarians from the President or the Prime Minister black-mailing that they would be sent home by the dissolution of the National Assembly.
Democracy, and particularly the institutions of liberal democracy, is the gifts of the Western world, which many in Pakistan cherish and would like to practice. The pro Anglo-Saxon school of thought ignores the fact that different social, political, and economic environments demand different political systems which could be based on democratic norms, but not the ditto copy of the US or the Great Britain political systems. Previous elected governments misgoverned Pakistan and lost their legitimacy. The former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had absolute majority in the Parliament. He failed to govern the state according to the norms of parliamentary form of government. Who is to be blamed? The ruling political party in the parliament could not save itself from the allegation of failure. At the same time, we cannot ignore the constitutional limits or shortcomings in the 1973 constitution.
Democratization is not an easy process. It would take at least a generation. There is no lasting democracy if the participant political culture fails to evolve. Unfortunately, the political leadership (majority of them) lacks the characteristics of democrats, economy is in chaos, and corruption can hinder the trust of common man in the democratic institutions. The popular trust in the institutions is vital to democracy. But in Pakistan popular distrust for democratic institutions is widespread, and prospects for generating increased political trust are uncertain.
Pakistan today stands at a crossroad. It is faced with three basic problems. First, how to reduce regional imbalances and thereby diminish the sense of regional injustice that provinces like Sindh, Balochistan and the Frontier claims. Second, how the ongoing process ensures the maintenance of a democratic system, which would prevent the military from future interventions and overthrow of the elected political governments. Third, how to deal with the nuclear weapons potential responsibly and reasonably. The inability of the suspended 1973 Constitution to cope with each of these three factors leads President Musharraf’s government determination to introduce a few amendments in the Constitution of Pakistan. The general impression is that these amendments would strengthen the role of NSC in the political setup of Pakistan. Consequently, the fears have been expressed that NSC would have adverse effect on spirit of the parliamentary form of government. And would undermine the salient features of the 1973 constitution. The President Musharraf’s government policies indicate that it does not harm the independence of the Judiciary, federal structure of the state remains intact, and the Islamic provisions of the constitution remain unchanged. The NSC shall only check the individuals —President and Prime Minister from behaving autocratically and unconstitutionally. The pre-requisite for the stable political system is the norm of ‘check and balance’ in the constitution of the state. This norm shall not be mere theoretical. But it shall be practical. Thus the institution of NSC shall be the sustainer of stable democratic political system in Pakistan.
Notes and References
1‘National Security Council’, Economic Review (Pakistan), Vol. 30 Issue 10 (October 1999). See also Nadeem Malik, ‘WB assured of NSC role in future’ The News (May 2, 2001)p1
2After careful examination of US political processes, one of the foremost students of democratic systems, Robert Dahl, had concluded, ‘no decision can be more fateful for Americans, and for the world, than decisions about nuclear weapons. Yet these decisions have largely escaped the control of the democratic process.’ See Robert C. Johansen, ‘Military Policies And The State System As Impediments To Democracy’ in David Held (ed.) Prospects For Democracy North, South, East, West (California: Standford University Press, 1993) pp.213, 214.
3Yunas Samad, ‘The military and democracy in Pakistan’, Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 3 Issue 3 (November 1994).
4See Teresita C. Schaffer, ‘Can Democracy Survive?’, World & I, Vol. 15, Issue 1 ( January 2000).
5See Eric Rouleau, ‘ Turkey’s Dream of Democracy’, Foreign Affairs Vol. 79 Issue 6 (November/December 2000).
6In the political system of Iran the Council of Guardian is extremely powerful. Its twelve members are responsible for interpreting the constitutional law and supervising the elections. See George E. Delury, World Encyclopedia of Political Systems and Parties, second edition, Vol. 1(New York: Facts on File Publication, 1983). p. 515.