While attending a talk show, Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, was asked about the speculation on changing the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Mr. Umar said there were certain flaws in the amendment pertaining to administrative matters between the federal and provincial governments that should be removed.
His comments triggered widespread criticism with political opponents and activists accusing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government of plotting to centralise more powers in the federal government.
The country passed the 18th Amendment in April 2010 when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was in power. The amendment brought Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution back — in a way — to the original intent of its framers and was hailed as a historic move. It addressed the grievances of the smaller provinces that had been demanding autonomy. The debate to bring some changes or to review the 18th Amendment have been doing the rounds for a few years now. Recently, the issue was brought up again.
Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, said in a talk show recently that there are some flaws in the 18th Amendment, triggering widespread criticism.
Asad The Hindu that he was asked a question about the 18th Amendment recently in a talk show.
“All I said was that there have been debates about the 18th Amendment in the past and there is nothing new about it — this debate has been going on for almost five years now,” Mr. Umar told The Hindu . “What I did say was and still maintain is that while dealing with COVID-19, we saw that there are some gaps due to health being a provincial subject. When the 18th Amendment was implemented, we found some lacunae and that are what I pointed out. Such gaps exist in other fields like education and industry. It does not mean that the government is thinking of changing it or not. The discussion came up and my response was regarding a question I was directly asked.”
Other PTI leaders had also made critical comments on the 18th Amendment in the past. On April 26, PTI legislator Faizullah Kamoka had said the provinces had failed to deliver after devolution of powers under the amendment.
Opposition parties responded sharply to Mr. Umar’s comments. Miftah Ismail, a former Finance Minister and senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, said there were many issues between the provinces and the Centre and the solution to such issues was more federalism and democracy.
“There are issues that need to be resolved and issues would come up from time to time that need to be amicably resolved but there is no going back on either giving the President of Pakistan more power vis-a-vis Parliament or the PM or circumcising the powers of the provinces. I believe that true federalism means that provinces not only have the power to act in various areas but they also have transferred responsibility in those areas. It would be good if the provinces raised more revenues and not relied on the federation so much,” he told The Hindu .
“If there is any need, I think the PML-N will be forthcoming but the ruling party has absolutely not demonstrated any need to amend any constitutional amendment.”
The PPP said the amendment put to rest the simmering discontent against the Centre. Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, Spokesperson to PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, told The Hindu that through the 18th Amendment, the PPP and allies had put to rest the simmering discontent against the Centre, “which over the years had been successfully exploited by nationalist forces”. Mr. Khokhar added: “To revisit it at a time when provinces require more resources to face the challenges posed by COVID-19, this move will not go down well and will surely make the Centre look like an aggressor bent upon stripping hard-earned rights,” said Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, spokesperson to PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
The Imran Khan government has dismissed criticism and has vowed to uphold the “spirit of federalism”.
Pakistan’s Parliamentary Secretary for Law and Justice, Barrister Maleeka Bokhari, says the 18th Amendment was an important milestone for Pakistan’s democracy and constitutional history. “The devolution of power, decision making and autonomy to the provinces was in accordance with the spirit of federalism.
“The PTI government appreciates and recognises the importance and benefits of the 18th Amendment. At present, there is no legal draft which is proposing to alter the changes made vide the 18th Amendment, nor is now the appropriate moment to make any changes,” Barrister Maleeka Bokhari, Parliamentary Secretary for Law and Justice, told The Hindu .
However, she added that all provisions of the Constitution and laws are evolving and may be subject to amendment. “The PTI government is presently of the view that the 18th Amendment and NFC [National Finance Commission] Award requires a review and reconsideration in accordance with the lacunae and flaws identified during our term in office. Any constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds majority as set out in the Constitution, and consensus of political parties.”
According to Salman Zaidi, director programmes at Jinnah Institute, there has been a consistent effort since August 2018 to sell a presidential system to the public or centralise powers and resources. “The 18th Amendment came after years of hard labour and grave lessons learnt in governance. The Opposition is right to criticise any moves to revoke the 18th Amendment, as it will reverse a decade of gains made in social service delivery, accountability, democratic empowerment and capacity built over time.”
Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore