Federalism can be defined as a system in which the power and authority to govern is constitutionally divided at two levels into two governing bodies, usually called center and province. In other systems, provincial units are named differently such as states and countries. It is one of the essential principles of democracy to decentralize the power from center to the constituent political units. Federalism also tend to expand functions, participation and government machineries by creating more units. The cases of countries such as United States prove that federalism may perform very efficiently and constructively to harmonize diverse economic activity and social pluralism. Indeed the US has outperformed many of the non-federalist countries in most aspects of state affairs. However, on the other hand, federalist institutions face certain challenges in different countries, especially in developing democracies.
Many argue that federalism may pave the way for weakening and eventual disintegration of a state because when a state (central government) gives autonomy to the provinces, separatist elements may take advantage of it which might eventually result in the separation. Such perception lies behind the growing tendency among developing countries to concentrate power at the central level. If we take the example of US federal system, we see that central government controls only the defence, foreign policy, currency, immigration etc. On the other hand, the federating units called states have sacrosanct jurisdiction in all other areas and over the whole state. In fact, when a state curbs provincial autonomy and try to maximize powers of the center, it may lead to disintegration. The separation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is the most suitable example. When West Pakistan curtailed the rights of Bengalis, including the right to rule, and concentrated the power at center (controlled by West Pakistan), Bengalis found themselves oppressed and eventually parted ways with the West Pakistan. In fact, decentralization may prevent a state from disintegration not vice versa.
Lack of accountability is considered another disadvantage of federalism. Critics of federalism argue that the central and provincial governments sometimes overlap each other’s functions or boundaries. Moreover, the undefined areas of responsibilities may lead to poor governance and instability. Consequently, it is difficult to hold government accountable because of systematic uncertainties. Such problem is being faced by a number of emerging democracies. In countering this argument, many scholars argue that the answer lies in a structural arrangement called dual federalism. Dual federalism, as opposed to cooperative federalism, means that the functions and powers of both governments are constitutionally defined and more clearly demarked. This may strengthen the process of accountability and increase efficiency.
The Case of Pakistan
From its inception, Pakistan had a rigorous form of centralism until the constitution of 1973 was adopted. Most notably, the 1962 Constitution made Pakistan a highly centralized state through the ‘one-unit’ system. Having a history of rigid centralism, the 1973 Constitution was a triumphant move for Pakistan’s fledgling federal system. The preamble of the 1973 Constitution ensures and directs federalism as the organizing principle of state. In 2010, a historic constitutional development took place in the shape of Eighteenth Amendment which stabilized country’s federal structure by devolution of a number of central powers and by guaranteeing autonomy to provinces. The constitution of Pakistan has lucidly provided a framework but, still, federalism in Pakistan is facing certain challenges.
Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, an eminent scholar, argues that Pakistan has a long tradition of centralization owing to factors such as perceived external threats and internal polarization. Even today, centralized institutions such as army and other ruling groups often try to maintain or enhance their powers over sub-units. The denial of making new provinces and administrative units is one such example of centralist mindset, despite the fact that new provinces or administrative units will eventually reduce the burden on central government.
The situation in Balochistan is another example of the outcome of denying decentralization. The centralist mindset would demand that separatist elements in Balochistan need to be suppressed. One may ask that what we have achieved so far by denying rights to the Baloch people. The answer would be, instability. In another rather different example, people in Gilgit-Baltistan want to be recognized as full citizens.
The level of trust and understanding among provincial governments on various issues is the cornerstone of federalism. Unfortunately in the case of Pakistan, one can observe severe disagreements and lack of trust among center and the provinces. For instance, Sindh demands an increase in its funds because Sindh government argues that Sindh generates significant amount of revenue, but in return it is not receiving its due share which was promised in the Eighteenth Amendment and 7th NFC Award. Similarly, other provinces also have their own reservations on resource-sharing. Another example of mistrust among provinces is that of the Kalabagh Dam. Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa strongly oppose the building of Kalabagh Dam, while Punjab supports it. This sort of disagreement may become a challenge for the central government in exercising its powers effectively and in regulating its units. Additionally, the Council of Common Interest, which was formed to solve issues among provinces, is also lacking in performing its functions.
Every country, whether unitary or federal, has some internal problems to cope with. A number of Pakistan’s internal problems can still be resolved through proper implementation of federal system. Both central and provincial governments must help the process of devolution according to the letter and spirit of constitutional provisions. Both levels of governments should adopt a harmonious and pragmatic approach in identifying their respective responsibilities. The federal institution in general, and Council of Common Interest in particular, need to be active and efficient in carrying out their role as assigned by the law. Such measures would diffuse tensions among the center and the province, also among those who demand new administrative units. This would also lead to positive changes in improving situation in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. Unless we take such measures, the democracy in Pakistan will not be able to take root.