The benefits of federalism to Pakistan

A federal system creates a largely de-centralised form of government where the federal government only has the power which has been enshrined to it in the constitution. The central government may not take power from the states, and vice-versa. The lines are quite clearly drawn.

Federalism has benefitted Pakistan in it’s two ways. One is that de-centralised power means that problems are more likely to be addressed on a community level “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it”- Milton Friedman. So power at the hands of an individual is dangerous even if well-intentioned, this is because leaders might not understand the grievances of locals in a remote area. A strong but de-centralised federal structure is designed to address these concerns. As locals have government authority over their local areas.

Take Pakistan’s evolving democracy and federalism. Up to 1971 Pakistan was a nominally federal state, there was clear hegemony established by Islamabad over Dhaka. The constitution of 1973 addressed these concerns. Although Pakistan has only partially implemented federalism I make a comparison in the areas where it has, and hasn’t.

Let’s take Khyber-Pakthunkwha (KPK) and (formerly the North West Frontier province) this borders the Tribal Areas where the Taliban operate with impunity and the Pashtuns in the KPK face attacks – and yet demands for independence from a “Punjabi dominated” state has been profoundly lacking in this ethnic minority province. Due to federalism.

My evidence is that in the last 3 elections, the people of the KPK have elected 3 different political parties. All 3 have bucked the national trend at the time, and all three have been fringe parties. First the Islamist’s failed from 2002-2007 (the MMA) and in 2008 the Pashtun nationalist ANP was elected. In the eyes of the Pashtun people, they failed too and were routed in the 2013 elections. It was Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice which was given the chance to rule. My point is that Pashtun nationalists have ruled the province for five years between 2008-2013 and they were soundly rejected the following election. This is an indicator of strength, not only for Pakistan’s democracy, but also for federalism. De-centralisation has meant that pashtun nationalists could not claim to be repressed and thus push for independence. They participated in democracy and a federal structure which gave them enhanced power, 5 years down the line citizens firmly rejected their ideology and gross incompetency.

Nonetheless, there are areas today where Pakistan doesn’t implement federalism and of course democracy. Take Balochistan for example where the military has long established hegemony over political life. It is in this province that the Pakistani state faces a severe challenge to establish authority.  Another example is FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), which borders Afghanistan. Here too the state has ruled directly since 1947 and here too the state is facing it’s most severe challenge. Even if extremists were given a chance to participate in a federal political process, the locals would have seen their true colours, as the people of KPK have with two different governments and soundly rejected them. The use of the military solution over democracy and federalism in these remote regions have inhibited progress and provided a priceless propaganda tool for terrorists. Because of the military terrorists can exploit a narrative that the Punjab province is “dominating” Balochistan and FATA, henceforth the terrorists are perceived by locals to be fighting for justice.

The ANP cannot exploit the ethnic card as they did in the past, they had government under a federal structure, plundered resources, and paid the price the following elections. If only Pakistan implemented true federalism before 1971 perhaps the country would not have split. And if it does so now in remote regions, there is a real chance that extremists within ethnic groups can not exploit the narrative of exploitation and push for independence. As a federal paradigm calls their bluff by empowering them with a certain degree of power and a monumental expectation of near-instantaneous results, only then do they crumble and divide under newfound political pressure. The people of Khyber Pakthunkhwa have moved on from the past. Imran Khan has been given the chance to form a government, now the pressure will be on the Movement for Justice (PTI) to deliver change.

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