Pakistan Needs Its Own Magna Carta

In 1215 A. D, King John of England signed the Magna Carta (“The Great Charter”) – a historic power-sharing arrangement with a group of rebel barons. The British legal system, and the American Constitution, enshrine its philosophy. What were the principles of Magna Carta that led to the emergence of two successive super powers?

In its sixty-three clauses, the thirteenth century barons engaged in deep thinking on a mechanism for opposing power holders to co-exist by constraining their own powers, with a system of local government (city charters), granting greater protections to citizens from themselves to ensure that power was not concentrated in a few hands – a far greater vision for nation-building than the twenty-first century leaders of our country.

Magna Carta eventually led to creation of a governance system of parliamentary democracy, affirmed liberties of local management for cities like London, giving all English subjects the right to a fair trial. The document established a balance of power between the barons and king, so the nation could progress without being paralyzed by struggles for power. We mark the history of great nations and empires with such grand bargains and landmark arrangements which show great statesmanship and sacrifice of constraining power of your constituency and devolving it to citizens to become more united and powerful as a nation.

Looking back at 73 years of our own upheavals- competition for absolute power between strong constituencies, from “vote ko izzat dou” to hybrid regimes, national reconciliation ordinance, charter for democracy, but there is no statesmanship of Magna Carta’s level. Our charters are about gaining absolute power, or perpetuation of self-power- for my family, clan or institution. They are mere affirmations of “my might is right” and not an act of state-craft by distributing power and creating an ownership society.

All institutions want a say in policy-making – but there must be an institutional mechanism for engagement between different state institutions for long-term policy development, though no key players address the central issue of setting up rules of power sharing and accountability. So, we live in a state of perpetual crisis, from commissions to reconciliations, or from Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) to Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Without agreed rules of respective responsibility and accountability enforced through an institutional set-up, we act like spoilt children seeking absolute power — what King John too craved. Instead of collaboration, co-habitation, we seek total domination and unquestioning loyalty. This is the reason our fight is about getting into government, but not whether Parliament performs!

Political families keep party leaderships within the family. Such tight control of talent to run the party, hence government, precipitates mis-governance and mis-management. Family comes first, then political party and nation perhaps last. The establishment too is caught in the game of building alliances with politicians, with hardly any strategy for systemic improvements.

And Pakistan continues to wait for statesmen or intellectuals who can develop blueprints of a grand bargain for our country’s progress. We dream of a Pakistani Great Charter which will strike a settlement between players, to reframe existing zero-sum and divisive political game of maximizing their share of national wealth, to aligning all constituencies to increase size of national wealth, so everyone has a greater share to themselves. For this, thinkers and ideologues must develop grand reform ideas.

Consensus is required on a new electoral system which creates a level playing field for new knowledgeable entrants, without privilege or established power. We need to think beyond first past-the-post system of winner-takes-all and governments forming with only thirty percent votes. A system of ranked choice on the ballot with proportional representation will make our electoral process more egalitarian, inclusive and break old political monopolies.

There should be a clear definition of a party that can be listed on the ballot, as an entity with regular election commission managed internal party elections. Without this condition, a party should not be listed on a ballot. There can also be a requirement of a minimum membership in each province to be registered on the ballot, to force political parties to appeal across linguistic, ethnic boundaries.

Legislators must be legislators. They can have no say in development projects or in executive decisions. No more than five percent of legislature can have any executive position — to keep a clear divide between legislature and executive. Term limits must be reinstated not only for the PM, but for legislators too. Representation is not life time entitlement or subject to ability to buy votes.

A Great Charter must be backed by a process of deep consultation, involving small town-hall meetings to draw up plans for deep reform of all our colonial institutions, from civil service to judiciary, from intellectual spaces to defense forces – to build an institutional and governance architecture for the digital age. The process should culminate in Parliament, and not in half-baked ordinances or amendments that are orchestrated in the dark of night.

The concept of Charter is embedded in Hadith. When Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) entered Mecca in a glorious victory, instead of retribution he sought co-existence with local power players by assigning houses as refuge of peace forging humanity’s first City Charter with residents of Mecca. The reverent final sermon at the Hajj about protecting property, keeping trust and equality before Allah of Arabs and non-Arabs- forging the Charter for Muslim Nationhood, to progress as a unified cohesive body, even as diversity increases.

Nation-building is a decades-long project that requires statesmen to think beyond themselves, their families, and to strive for growth of our nation by bringing out its best facets and strengths of constituencies together. This is not only politically correct, but an obligation incumbent upon all of us.

*r. Malik Ahmad Jalal