As long as Punjab’s voters are happy, a political party can easily afford to ignore other provinces, especially Balochistan and FATA
During the past two weeks, Pakistan witnessed a terrorist attack in Quetta, devastating twin bombings in Parachinar and the tragic oil tanker inferno in Bahawalpur. The way the government, media and mainstream political parties reacted to these incidents spoke volumes about the nature of the Pakistani federation.
Their response to the terrorist attacks in Quetta and Parachinar was muted compared with the Bahawalpur tragedy. No senior government official or political party figure visited either Quetta or Parachinar following the attacks.
In contrast, in the wake of the ghastly oil tanker inferno in Bahawalpur, the prime minister cut short his trip to London and rushed back to Bahawalpur to visit the injured and condole with the victims’ families.
These events have once again revealed the ‘step-motherly treatment’ that FATA and Balochistan receive in Pakistan. More importantly, it has shed light on the traditional apathy of Pakistan’s mainstream parties towards the plight of the people of Balochistan and FATA.
The PML-N, in particular, faces long-standing accusations of catering only to its voter base in Punjab.
The indifferent behaviour of these parties is explained by Pakistan’s majoritarian federal design, which institutionalizes the dominance of Pakistan’s core ethnic group — the Punjabis. The province of Punjab dominates Pakistan’s premier decision-making body ie Parliament and core federal institutions i.e. the bureaucracy and the military.
For now, let’s consider the case of Parliament. The distribution of seats on the basis of population in the National Assembly means the province of Punjab has more seats than all other three provinces combined. Senate, where all provinces have equal representation, was supposed to be the “majority-constraining” institution.
However, lesser powers especially with regards to money bills, fewer votes in joint settings and the indirect method of elections mean the Senate has not been very effective in protecting the interests of smaller provinces.
A weaker senate combined with the fact that Punjab possesses the majority of seats in the NA means that any political party seeking to come to power in Pakistan has to be mindful of the Punjab vote bank.
Pakistan’s current federal design makes Balochistan and FATA the least-rewarding political constituencies and thus offers little or no incentive to political parties to care about these regions
As long as Punjab’s voters are happy, a political party can easily afford to ignore other provinces especially Balochistan and FATA. With no provincial legislature, FATA fares the worst of all federating units.
To cut it short, Pakistan’s current federal design makes Balochistan and FATA the least-rewarding political constituencies and thus offers little or no incentive to political parties to care about these regions.
The 18th amendment partially undid the majoritarian character of the Pakistani federation by devolving powers to the provinces and reinvigorating the role of the Council of Common interests (CCI). Owing to resistance from Punjab-based parties, the amendment, however, could not address the concerns of smaller provinces regarding powers of the Senate and the creation of new provinces — the two principal instruments for constraining majoritarianism at the federal level.
Moreover, the return of the pro-centralization PML-N to power, the reluctance of political parties to devolve powers to local governments, and the poor capacity of provinces has meant that even the changes introduced by the 18th amendment have not been a great success.
All this implies that control of, and representation in the Centre continues to have high political value and significance. The challenge is to somehow make parties ruling at the Centre take peripheral regions equally seriously.
The most effective way to achieve this is to alter the institutional rules of the game that political parties follow. Political parties are vote-maximising actors who respond to the incentives presented by the institutional environment in which they operate. These institutional rules need to be modified so that political parties see higher returns and rewards on their political investment in smaller regions.
In this regard, the creation of a pluri-national and more inclusive federation which combines territorial self-rule with consociational government at the centre and re-organises provinces along ethno-national lines, is the best way forward.
Since the 18th amendment has already introduced territorial self-rule, it is high time for ensuring some consociational power-sharing mechanisms at the Centre. This can be done by giving the Senate co-equal powers with the NA in both financial and non-financial matters including money bills, high-level executive appointments, ratification of treaties and other matters affecting the whole federation.
Most importantly, the current indirect elections should be replaced by direct elections of senators by the people of each province through a system of proportional representation. This, combined with enhancing the powers of the Senate would incentivise political parties to care equally about smaller provinces, which will in turn induce more political competition in smaller provinces.
Lastly, boundaries of existing provinces should be re-organised along ethno-national lines and FATA should be either merged with KP or declared a full-pledged independent province in par with other provinces.
The writer is a public policy graduate from University of Oxford
Published in Daily Times, July 5th , 2017