Earlier this week, PEMRA reportedly laid down new guidelines for vetting experts asked to comment on defence and security related matters in the media. These guidelines, which were circulating on social media, stated that the term ‘defence analyst’ could only be used for serving and retired military personnel, with the assumption being that only soldiers had the expert knowledge required to comment on these issues; while other experts could be asked for their opinions, they would simply be identified as ‘analysts’. There is a lot to unpack here, not least of all the assumptions and agenda underpinning the creation of these new rules, as well as the entertaining politics surrounding how puffed-up television personalities insist on being addressed by ever more elaborate labels in an attempt to address their own insecurities. However, what PEMRA forgot to include in its directive was an obvious exemption for men possessing high cheekbones, a deep baritone, and appropriately styled facial hair. If you happen to possess these attributes, PEMRA might have said, you can comment on anything you want.

Hamza Ali Abbasi is not a man known for keeping his opinions to himself, an unfortunate fact that leaves all of society poorer for it. While history will undoubtedly remember the man for his looks rather than his teachings, it is nonetheless one of modern life’s great ironies that someone whose grip on politics and social affairs is tenuous at best has nonetheless managed to attract a reasonably large following of impressionable young men and women who confuse good looks and an athletic build for a well-exercised mind. In this, they are not alone; after all, much the same can be said for many who have chosen to blindly follow Pakistan’s current Prime Minister. Abbasi, who has previously sung the praises of Hafiz Saeed, castigated liberals for their intolerance while hobnobbing with individuals and organizations routinely accused of violence and hate speech, and spent much of the last few years balancing his star turns in patriotic films with uncritical support for the PTI, weighed in this week on the question of Pakistan’s governance. Echoing sentiments that have historically been expressed by dictators and their collaborators, Abbasi pined for a presidential system in Pakistan, lamenting the influence of MNAs and MPAs and the powers enjoyed by Pakistan’s provincial governments. Taking a charitable view of these comments, one might be tempted to conclude that Abbasi’s words simply reflected a well-meaning, if superficial, attempt to intervene in debates over governance amidst growing economic and political instability.

Such a view would, however, be incorrect because Abbasi’s views on presidential government echo a popular narrative that has long been championed by those who have opposed the creation and evolution of a more empowered, effective, and participatory democratic system in Pakistan. Virtually from the very moment of Pakistan’s independence, establishment elites and in the military and bureaucracy, as well as their supporters in the political parties, have sought to establish a strong, centralized system of government in which executive power is able to sideline or overrule parliament. The assumption here has always been that such a form of government would allow for decisive decision-making, perhaps with input from experts and technocrats, which would circumvent the need to consult with a parliament inevitably riven with partisan agendas and narrow, often contradictory, special interests. It is assumed that a president with vast powers would literally be able to transform Pakistan with the stroke of a pen, ushering in reform and prosperity by executive fiat.

Attractive as all of this sounds, history teaches us otherwise. There is a reason why, as is well recognized in the political science literature, presidential forms of government tend to be inherently more unstable than their parliamentary counterparts. Indeed, the United States is essentially the only country in the world where a purely presidential form of government has succeeded, and even then it has been under arguably unique circumstances. Elsewhere, if you discount hybrid systems like the one in France, presidential forms of government have tended to collapse, either under the weight of their own contradictions, or as a result of coups and social movements seeking to overthrow them.

The reasons for this are manifold but can be reduced to a few key points. First, presidential systems tend to be premised on ‘winner-takes-all’ elections in which parties that win executive power are able to wield tremendous amounts of power without the need for consulting with, or including, opposition parties. Especially in systems where democratic norms and institutions are weak, this leads to a concentration of power in the hands of the president absent significant checks and balances. Second, this concentration of power exacerbates broader inequalities in politics and society; with the exclusion of opposition parties and elected representatives from the policymaking process leading to forms of governance that simply ignore significant stakeholders and sections of the electorate. Third, all of this is made worse by the existence of separate mandates for the executive and legislature; having come to power through separate votes, the president and parliament can both claim democratic legitimacy, potentially leading to conflict and logjam. Finally, presidents are often difficult to remove and their removal itself is usually accompanied by the complete dissolution of their governments. All of this is in contrast with parliamentary systems, even majoritarian ones, where legislators are able to exercise greater accountability over the executive and ensure more equitable governance outcomes.

It is obvious that Pakistan’s democracy is dysfunctional, and that the daily shenanigans of the political elite can make switching to a more centralized system of government seem like an attractive proposition. However, it must be remembered that presidentialism, especially as it is articulated in Pakistan, is little more than code for authoritarianism and a return to a system in which the democratic will of the people can simply be ignored. Moreover, while people are quick to point to the failures of parliament, they often forget that presidentialism has been tried repeatedly in Pakistan and has always failed; the entire period from 1947 to 1972 was essentially a presidential one, and the same can be said for the period from 1977 to 1988. Even the parliamentary interlude from 1988 to 1999 was one in which the president wielded tremendous control over parliament, and Musharraf’s dictatorship from 1999 to 2007 was hardly representative of a parliamentary system.

When people like Hamza Abbasi sing the praises of presidentialism, they are wittingly or unwittingly ignoring history and simply reproducing a narrative of authoritarianism that has long existed in Pakistan. Writing on authoritarianism, some political scientists have argued that there are psychosexual factors underpinning support for strongmen; young men raised in patriarchal societies with dominant fathers crave the order and control they experienced in their family lives and feel that a strong father figure would be best suited to governing their countries. Whatever his own motivations might be, Hamza Abbasi would do well to learn that daddy does not always know best.