A presidential cabinet?- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob


THE honourable judges of the Supreme Court including the chief justice of Pakistan made a number of hard-hitting comments during the recent (April-May 2020) proceedings of the suo motu case regarding the fight against the coronavirus in Pakistan. Two of these comments were specifically about the size and make-up of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet which were widely reported in the print and electronic media.

The honourable chief justice observed that the size of the cabinet was too large and even a 10-member cabinet was enough to run government affairs. The Constitution of Pakistan, after the passage of the 18th Amendment, had set a ceiling on the size of the cabinet to not exceed 11 per cent of the total strength of parliament which translates into 49. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet had 29 members including 25 ministers and four ministers of state at the time of this observation. This number has since increased to 30. Although one can argue on the merits of a smaller cabinet, the prime minister seems to be well under the constitutional ceiling.

The size of Imran Khan’s current cabinet — 29 — happens to be exactly equal to the average of the 50 cabinets Pakistan has seen since 1947. The largest among these cabinets was led by Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of the PPP and had 75 ministers and ministers of state in 2008 while the smallest under a democratic dispensation was that of president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto which had 12 members from December 1971 to May 1972.

But where the Supreme Court hit the target was in its comment about the high proportion of unelected members in the prime minister’s ‘extended’ cabinet. Although the constitutional definition of the cabinet includes ministers and ministers of state only, advisers and special assistants are traditionally considered part of the ‘extended’ cabinet. While the ministers and ministers of state are elected members of one of the two houses of parliament, advisers and special assistants are generally unelected, and this was what the Supreme Court judges were referring to.

Relying on unelected professionals for cabinet-level positions goes against parliamentary ethos.

Currently, the prime minister has five advisers which is the maximum number allowed in the Constitution. In addition, there are 15 special assistants for which there is no explicit provision in the Constitution. But it has become increasingly fashionable to have special assistants to the prime minister since the adoption of the 18th Amendment. Some feel that special assistants are appointed to circumvent the ceiling on the number of ministers and advisers, and hence strongly resent this practice. This practice of appointing special assistants has also been challenged in the court of law.

The number of special assistants had been varying between three and 13 in the past but Imran Khan has the distinction of appointing the highest number — 15 — of special assistants in the history of Pakistan. With this, the total number of ‘extended’ cabinet members has reached the half-century mark with a record 20, or 40pc, of them being unelected.

Although advisers and special assistants cannot formally hold executive powers available to ministers, almost all of them practically function as ministers and a majority of them have been declared to hold the status equivalent to either a minister or minister of state. Advisers can attend the sittings of the two houses of parliament and make statements there on behalf of the government but this facility is not available to special assistants.

Now we, in fact, have two parts of the cabinet of almost equal size; one consisting of 29 elected members of parliament and holding about 10 substantive portfolios such as foreign affairs, communication, power, interior etc along with some relatively less substantive portfolios. The other part of the cabinet consists of 20 unelected experts, professionals or some loyal political comrades who could not win the last election but needed to be accommodated. This part of the cabinet also carries about 10 substantive portfolios such as finance, commerce, health, parliamentary affairs, etc.

This state of the cabinet raises some key questions such as why prime ministers in general and Imran Khan in particular have inducted such a large number of unelected members into the ‘extended’ cabinet. Is our kind of democracy unable to elect persons of such calibre to parliament as required to lead the ministries, especially such heavyweight ministries as finance, commerce, parliamentary affairs, health, social protection, establishment, overseas Pakistanis and institutional reforms? This leads one to ask whether we are moving towards a hybrid model including the ingredients of a presidential cabinet in which the chief executive picks a cabinet from outside the legislature.

Whatever the reason, the current extra-constitutional practice of relying on a large number of unelected professionals for cabinet-level positions in the guise of special assistants needs to be reviewed because it runs counter to the ethos of a parliamentary system of government. It not only creates heartburn among the elected members of parliament who feel passed over by the unelected lot, it also raises questions about the double standards of transparency and accountability such as declaration of assets and liabilities which is legally binding on elected members but not on unelected ones. Moreover, special assistants, despite holding portfolios, are not answerable to parliament.

One can understand the need for a couple of highly specialised special assistants, such as the one for social protection and poverty alleviation at present, but inducting 15 special assistants seems like a deviation from parliamentary norms. Political parties should probably review the system of picking their candidates and opt for such persons who may be able to lead the ministries. More importantly, the political parties should consider adopting the system of shadow cabinets as in Britain, for example, so that elected members may develop their capacity and competence about ministries while in the opposition and are ready to assume cabinet responsibilities when their party comes to power.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.


Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2020