Discussion on 18th Constitutional Amendment has stirred up once again on mainstream Pakistani media, politicians and social media. The issue came into sharp focus after the Tehreek-e-Insaf Government hinted at re-visiting the amendment.
The debates suggest that the establishment and government is of the view that amendment has weakened the center’s hold on resources causing financial crises in the country.
All major opposition political parties like PPP, PML-N, JUI-F, ANP, QWP, PKMAP etc. have shown strong reaction to the Government’s plans of bringing amendments into the 18th constitutional amendment. The opposition parties say that revisiting of the amendment is aimed to rescind the provincial autonomy and have threatened launching countrywide protests even amidst coronavirus crises.
Senator Shibli Faraz, the newly appointed Federal Minister Information, says the time is not suitable for starting debate over 18th amendment issue, however, in his opinion there are certain weaknesses in that amendment and needs to be debated at certain suitable time. Previously PTI other leaders such as President Arif Alvi, Faisal Vawda and Asad Omar have also commented on weaknesses of 18th amendment.
The amendment was unanimously adopted by parliament in 2010 and was vastly hailed as a practical step towards making Pakistan a democracy.
Awami National Party Sardar Hussain Babak says the establishment may have no issue with the entire 102 articles of 18th amendment but he believes establishment wants to eliminate few articles like new interpretation of article 6, National Finance Commission (NFC) award and provincial autonomy.
Chairman Qaumi Watan Party Aftab Khan Sherpao in a statement said that the 18th amendment has struck down the Article 58(2) (b) that gave the president power to sack an elected government; similarly, the 18th Amendment provides the provinces with strong financial autonomy and sense of equality to the smaller provinces. He warned that any effort to repeal the 18th amendment would meet strong resistance.
On the other hand, there also have been many problems of capacity, competence of the provinces and their working liaison with the center, especially in education, health and more importantly in tax collection targets, failing on which made the center suffered greatly in terms of revenue collection and huge budget deficits.
Former Prime minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi in his TV interview in 2018, has criticized restructuring of the NFC award under 18th Amendment saying that 58 per cent share of fiscal resources is given to the provinces and center is left with meager resources for defense expenditure and debt servicing that constitute the major pie of the budget. He stressed the need for re-visiting few articles like that of NFC award of the 18th amendment.
Various legal and constitutional experts have termed the abolishing of numerous subjects under the 18th amendment as tantamount to weakening the federation and endangering the sovereignty of the state. For example, there is a need for a single curriculum and unified education system in all provinces of the country, but it could not be implemented due to the different priorities of provincial governments besides their capacity issues. The recent Coronavirus issue has badly exposed the incompetence of almost all provincial governments in terms of health facilities and governance. The provincial governments with all financial and legislative autonomy and billions of funds available with them did not purchase ventilators for hospitals in past 10 years nor did they do any planning or preparations for emergency situations like corona pandemic. Similarly, the center and provinces are divided over the nature of lockdown; it seems there is no coordination or chain of command between federal and provincial governments.
Civil society activists and human rights organizations have also shown concerns over certain clauses of 18th Amendments including barring non-Muslims from holding the office of president, calling it a discrimination against religious minorities.
A constitution is not a lifeless or static document, it is very much a living document, a social contract between the state and its citizens, which should be amended according to the challenges of time and situation. The constitution is a sacred document and every citizen must abide by it but 18th Amendment is merely a continuation of the changes and amendments starting from the first ever constitution of 1956 to the constitution of 1962, 1973 until the latest amendments and the process would continue. All the political parties should put their political interests aside and look into the matter with the perspective of national interest.