Beleaguered beyond belief
Pakistan can be described as a democratic country with an elected government that functions under a more or less liberal democratic constitution. The 18th and 20th constitutional amendments have expanded the scope of provincial autonomy and reduced the powers of the president to the minimum. The National Finance Commission Award that became operational in 2010 has made the provinces more viable financially.
Despite these positive developments, there is also a downside of working of democracy in Pakistan. It manifests the weaknesses of the transitional democracy — from a military-dominated political order to elected civilian governance.
The goal of turning Pakistan into a full democracy may not materialise because it sets the high standards of constitutional liberalism, equal citizenship, civil and political rights on a non-discriminatory basis, and the rule of law. Pakistan faces five major challenges on way to achieving these ideals.
The first challenge to the future of democracy comes from the people and groups who want to use the democratic procedures and elections as a means to implementing their peculiar political ideas or a hard-line puritanical Islamic order. For them, democracy has instrumental relevance and elections provide an established way to access power. Once political power is achieved, they can use the electoral legitimacy to turn Pakistan into a state based on their ideological framework. There is no commitment to democracy as an ideal but it is viewed as a means to something else.
The second major threat to genuineness of democracy in Pakistan comes from the non-elected state institutions like the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary. The bureaucracy has often supported or worked with other non-elected institutions to expand its authority over the elected institutions and the people. The military has traditionally undermined the prospects of democracy in Pakistan through its direct and indirect rule. The military’s direct and indirect rule and the attempts to restructure the political system to its satisfaction and cooption of a section of the political elite helped to entrench the political power of the military. It did not solve the problem of fragility of political institution that enabled the military to assume power. The military has been out of power since 2008 but it continues to be a powerful political player from the sideline.
The judiciary was supportive of the military’s expanded role in the past. It endorsed the direct assumption of power by the military on all four occasions. Since the restoration of the present Chief Justice and other judges in 2009, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have engaged in a high pace judicial activism and have built pressure on the elected parliament and the elected federal government. The comments of the judges, as published in the media, have political implications in the politically divided political context. The Chief Justice has argued more than once that the parliament is not the supreme institutions and that the Supreme Court has an overriding power with reference to constitution. This has created uncertainty about what the parliament can or cannot do, especially after one prime minister was convicted by the Supreme Court on contempt of court and sent home. The key issue is that democracy requires institutional balance and restraint rather than one state institution dominating all others, especially the elected ones. The confrontation between the elected executive and non-elected judiciary is not a good omen for democracy.
Unrestrained competition among the political players is the third threat to democracy. Though all important political parties are in power either at the federal level or in provinces, the focus is on the PPP-led federal government. The PPP and its allies are struggling for political survival and attempt to hold on to power by all possible means. The opposition parties, especially the PMLN, are often engaged in a free-for-all effort to dislodge the federal government. As the PMLN cannot replace the PPP-led federal government in the National Assembly, it has attempted to resort to street agitation to achieve this objective. It also hopes that the Supreme Court or the military will remove this government.
The Punjab Chief Minister (PMLN) has openly preached defiance of and street agitation against the federal government on electric power shortages. The open support to culture of violence is a dangerous development because, in the long run, street agitation and violence undermine democracy.
The fourth major threat to democracy is religious extremism and terrorism that can cause the break-up of the society. Religious extremism is not confined to far and remote areas of Pakistan. It is publicly practiced on the mainland. The killing of people by a frenzied mob on some religious account is not an unusual phenomenon in Pakistan. The religious minorities are targeted by extremist societal groups. Islamic sectarian conflict, especially the killings of Shias, is more common now.
The most unfortunate aspect of such extremist incidents is that the political and religious leaders shy away from publicly condemning the groups that take the responsibility for such acts. They criticise violence and sectarianism only in general terms, arguing that Islam does not sanction such violence. Religious and cultural intolerance and terrorism are the antithesis of democracy.
The fifth major threat to democracy comes from poor governance by the federal and provincial governments. The popular support for democracy is bound to decline if the democratic governments do not deliver services and security to the people. The governments need to adopt policy-measures to reduce socio-economic pressures on the common people and assure them security of their life and property. All governments have performed poorly, causing alienation among the common people.
Pakistan’s economy is in real trouble. The opposition leaders talk of the troubled economy only to criticise the federal government. They have no concrete ideas to suggest solutions. They are also not prepared to adopt a joint strategy to cope with economic challenges. The Islamic parties and some of the mainstream political parties are talking of tough disposition towards the western countries which will isolate the federal government and make it impossible to salvage the economy.
Pakistan is currently facing deep-rooted structural problems that can cause a total collapse of the political system or it may function only at the minimum level. All political parties and state institutions need to work together within a democratic constitutional framework to address these problems. If the current power struggle continues unabated, neither the present democratic order nor an authoritarian or technocratic arrangement can salvage the situation.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.