LAHORE - In his address to the joint session of parliament, the president was supposed to make a serious speech, reflecting the country’s current situation and the pointing to the improvement the people can expect in their living conditions from the policies the government intends to pursue. But what the tense-faced Zardari said in his 30-minute talk in the midst of opposition protests could at best be categorised as a set of cruel jokes.

His utterances were detached from ground realities, which would add to the depression the common man is already experiencing because of the myriad problems.

For example, the president said inflation has been brought down to 11 per cent; 3,300MW electricity has been added to the national grid (although the long spells of loadshedding threatens to become more painful when the mercury starts going up). Rule of law has been established and supremacy of parliament ensured, the president claimed.

Will anybody take these and some other claims seriously? They can only be laughed at.

In his address the president was all praise for the prime minister for his leadership qualities. And, interestingly, the prime minister has already stated that he will take up the cudgels on president’s behalf and will face any fallout of the Supreme Court’s order about writing to the Swiss authorities to reopen the cases against Mr Zardari.

The president did not see any problem in the working of the Gilani government, nor did he give any roadmap for the future.

This is indicative of a major drawback in our political system. If the president and the prime minister join hands for commonality of interests they can pauperise the country – as is the situation now – without facing any consequences. Both sides will indulge in mutual ‘back-scratching’, giving the false impression of everything being alright.

In the period of Gen Ziaul Haq, the president was laced with powers given through the Eighth Amendment. Under one article of the Constitution, the president had the power to dissolve the National Assembly if, in his judgment, it was not working satisfactorily.

The late Ziaul Haq was of the considered view that while inaugurating the new parliamentary year the president was not supposed to read out the speech provided by the government – which would only catalogue achievements and paint a very rosy picture of the situation, no matter what the facts. He used to say that if the president has to give details of the dispensaries and latrines set up by the government, there is no justification to spend tens of millions of rupees on this high office. He believed that the president should have a check on the working of the government and play his constitutional role if the system is not working.

But the general did not know that after his death those in power would play havoc with the system of checks and balances. These people repealed the 8th Amendment, depriving the president of all vital powers and making the prime minister all powerful.

Then, Gen Musharraf as president took back all such powers through the 17th Amendment. However, once again those in power and opposition at present again tilted the balance of power heavily in favour of the prime minister.

The visionless leaders on both sides of the political divide turned a blind eye to the arguments that the parliamentary system in practice in Britain is not divine, nor is Pakistan under obligation to follow it in its entirety. Every country has the right to have a system of its own choice and tailor it to suit local requirements.

After the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments, although the president has once again been stripped of all powers, he is running the government because he is also the co-chairman of the ruling PPP. He issues orders and the prime minister is supposed to follow them.

The nation knows the ‘integrity’ of the president and the prime minister, but their commonality of interests is keeping them together. The president sees nothing wrong with the working of the government, and the prime minister is proud of being the humble servant of the president. He will also feel honoured if he gets a chance to serve Bilawal Zardari, the chairman of the PPP, thanks to the hereditary politics being practised in the country.

The question is who will safeguard the national interests at a time when the top two are hand in glove with each other. They don’t even respect the court orders.

It’s time for the PML-N and other opposition parties to see whether the existing distribution of powers between the president and the prime minister suits the country and whether it is fair to allow the president to simultaneously work as head of the ruling party.