DailyTimes | Pakistan’s democratic odyssey

Pakistan’s democratic odyssey


The story of Pakistan’s democracy is a tawdry and chequered one. Its plot twists and turns have seen the country oscillate between incompetent political leaders and the perennial combination of military-cum-judicial power plays, all of which are aided and abetted by political, non-state and regional actors.

Thus the premeditated ouster of PM Nawaz Sharif was largely anticipated. Moreover, independent media circles have alleged that the latter’s judicially-motivated disqualification represents an integral component of the ‘Kayani-Pasha Doctrine’(pulling strings from behind-the-scenes), which evolved against the backdrop of the Charter of Democracy and the first ever civilian-to-civilian democratic transition.

This institutionalised doctrine espouses the influencing and pressurising of governments from the sidelines. Meaning that no visible control is taken of important matters such as internal counter-terrorism strategies, hefty budgetary allocations, apportioning the lion’s share of CPEC projects — not to mention bilateral relations with India, Afghanistan, Iran and the US. The goal is to divide the coalition government or the ruling party, create a grand opposition (the Imran Khan-Dr Tahirul Qadri joining of hands), seek help from regional and global allies to further squeeze the state apparatus and finally buy media houses to shape public opinion against the Centre.

None of Pakistan’s Prime Ministers has to date completed his or her tenure. The roots of this are to be found in the historical tinkering with the fragile fabric of democracy. Thus it should come as no small surprise that during the 1947-1958 period — the country was governed by four heads of state and seven premiers. Significantly, neighbouring India hasn’t fallen to prey to a single dictator at any time throughout its democratic history.

From Authoritarian Rule Toward Democratic Governance: Learning from Political Leaders is an extremely insightful essay. It spells out the salient principles to safeguard successful democratic transitions. These may well be applied to the Pakistani context

In the confluence of civil-military battles, the country’s constitution has been the primary casualty. Twice has it been abrogated (1958 and 1969) and thrice suspended (1977, 1999 and 2007). The above refer to Ayub Khan’s period of ‘controlled democracy’, Ziaul Haq’s Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) and Pervez Musharraf’s PCO and Legal Framework Order (LFO). All of which represented repeated assaults on Pakistan’s constitutional health, leaving the polity fighting for its life.

The country’s political history has thus passed through turbulent phases of governance and management:

  1. a) Civilian political government: Aug1947 — Oct — 1958; Dec 1971 — July 1977; Feb2008 — Oct 2017;
  2. b) Direct military rule: Oct1958 — June 1962; March 1969 — Dec 1971; July 1977 — Dec 1985; Oct 1999 — Nov 2002;
  3. c) Selective use of democracy by the military (post-military rule) June 1962 — March 1969; March 1985 — Nov 1988;
  4. d) Military’s influence from the sidelines on policy making under civilian governments Dec1988 — Oct 1999;
  5. e) Military’s direct involvement in power management after the end of military rule; constitutional and legal role for the military Nov2002 — 2008.

Therefore, if we take impartial stock of the current landscape we can easily see that the brewing crises stem from institutional imbalances, lack of civic consensus-building, weakly structured political parties with undemocratic leadership, the use of Islam as an instrument of state power, bouts of military rule as well as constitutional and political engineering.

Our Tsarist military generals have held up many banners to justify the overthrowing of civilian governments. These have included the Doctrine of Necessity, to safeguard the all encompassing national interest and according Islam status of the highest law in the land. To ensure their survival while furthering their self-interest, our dictators came up with, at various turns, their own spin on what governance means. From Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy, Zia’s leaning towards the apolitical and Musharraf’s devolution of power. In a bid to at once avoid any public backlash as well as undermine grassroots support of political parties — local government has been used to create an illusion of power being transferred to the people. In reality, however, local body systems have introduced new loyalists, proxies and protégés of traditional feudal families. In other words, the masses have been by and large excluded from decision-making and governance.

The fate of Pakistan’s democracy is not tied up with individuals but, rather, with inherent culture and procedural norms. Thus the engineered ouster of Nawaz may well prove harmful to the country’s long-term health. Nevertheless, we must avoid viewing the crises through a binary lens that dictates the following: either his staying or his going, the stalling of the transition to democracy and the compromising of civilian supremacy.

From Authoritarian Rule Toward Democratic Governance: Learning from Political Leaders is an extremely insightful essay. Published by intergovernmental organisation IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), it spells out the salient principles to safeguard successful democratic transitions. These may be applied to the Pakistani context. And given that leadership needs vision, hard work, persistence and a specific skill set, we have nothing to lose by exploring this further.

Thus the essential ‘10 imperatives for crafting democratic transitions’ are as follows:

First, opposition leaders need to play a meaningful role in the fight against unconstitutional forces. They must display tolerance, openness and willingness to put personal differences aside. Maximalist and sectorial tendencies need to go out of the window in favour of greater national and collective interests.

Second, political party manifestoes must boast a broad-based inclusiveness, including commitments to social justice and development for all. When hitting the campaign trail, parties should strive to reach out to as many different sections of society as possible, thereby crossing ethnic, religious and, of course, political lines.

Third, fostering a sense of convergent interests and forming coalitions should be realised by involving cross sections of society. This will result in empowerment and democratisation of the political process.

Four, inter-institutional dialogue — especially between the Parliament, judiciary and the Army — could create spaces for exchange between democratic movements and authoritarian regimes. This will pave the way for confidence-building measures, deeper understanding and peaceful resolution of long simmering issues.

Five, transition leaders must rein in both the armed forces and the security apparatus in terms of internal as well as external interference in the civilian domain. However, this will be unachievable without first putting in place systems of good governance and modern civil forces; both of which are needed for the state to function efficiently. These must focus on external defence and international peacekeeping missions.

Six, it is imperative that any constitutional changes be for the collective wellbeing and not for personal gain.

Seven, there is a dire need to address socio-economic disparities through innovative fiscal management aimed at helping the poorest and the most vulnerable elements of society.

Eighth, parties need to hold in-house elections so that leadership positions as well as political processes are devolved to the rank and file.

Ninth, strict accountability must be guaranteed across the board, and not just when it comes to politicians.

Tenth, the West and European countries have a responsibility to support good governance as opposed to dishing out aid and triggering regime change.

In such a way can democracy be given the much needed breathing space to flourish and deliver. Yet presently, patience and fair play appear in short supply. The time to act is now. If, that is, we don’t wish to see this nascent project derailed irreversibly.