April Issue 2018

By | Cover Story | Published 6 years ago


At one level, all seems well with Pakistani democracy. An elected government is in place and about to complete its term. Irrespective of performance, participation of members and their quality of debate, both the upper and lower houses of Parliament are functioning. All other state institutions, including the armed forces and the judiciary, are “active and effective” under their constitutional domain — at least in the eyes of the public.

Other optics also support the fact that democracy is not just surviving, but thriving in Pakistan, in the same manner as it does in any other third world country — ie. despite all its flaws and weaknesses. Political and religious parties of every shade lure and draw the masses, even while making their lives difficult by their crimes and sins of omission and commission. Civil society — represented by local and foreign-funded non-governmental organisations and concerned individuals — is active, challenging the government and institutions on assorted issues, including human rights, missing persons, extra-judicial killings and corruption. A lively, noisy media is both, shaping and distorting the public discourse and taking up many of those issues which were once considered taboo in Pakistan’s political and social arena.

All this, and yet there are many prophets of doom and gloom who say that democracy remains under threat, that space for elected governments is shrinking — and shrinking fast. They see the army keeping civilian rulers on a tight leash, allowing them little space to lead on important fronts such as foreign relations and national security — in short to fulfil their mandate.

The long and ever-expanding list of allegations against the military ranges from them orchestrating mini and mega opposition protests against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, manufacturing dissent and factions within political parties, and encouraging new alignments and alliances at the cost of old ones. The latest addition to the list of allegations remains the allegation of manipulating the change of face in the Balochistan provincial government and the recent elections for the chairmanship and deputy chairmanship of the Senate.

The vigour with which the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is pursuing select people for corruption and the way the superior judiciary appears focused on cases involving the disgraced ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif and his family members along with some of his close aides, are all attributed to the “hidden hands” linked to the mighty military establishment.

Meanwhile, the military spokesperson, Major General Asif Ghafoor, has time and again rejected such allegations, saying that the armed forces remain exclusively focused on their constitutional role.

So the pertinent question remains whether the glass is half-full or half-empty when it comes to democracy and its prospects in Pakistan.

In the country’s present highly polarised atmosphere, the answer to this question would depend on which side of the fence one stands. Those belonging to the small, influential and politically correct and connected segment of society, or falling in the category of activists, would certainly claim that they see democracy under threat and declare the army as the ultimate villain in this game of thrones.

If one falls in the category of the common man — angry and bitter with the present state of affairs — most likely he or she would hold leaders belonging to the mainstream parties responsible for most ills troubling the country and call for flushing out all dishonest politicians from the echelons of power. This common man is not bothered about how the country reaches the elusive goal of achieving effective, honest and pro-people governance — whether through democracy or authoritarian rule. He/she is simply interested in results.

Between these two extremes, lies a middle ground, reflecting the reality. That reality being the fact that the challenge to democracy, or its own shortcomings, are not as deadly as many contend. In fact, in these days of uncertainty, there is a silver lining for democrats and democracy in Pakistan.

“If the military wants to take over (power), it could do so in five minutes, just five minutes,” a senior military official told a select group of journalists on the condition of anonymity. “We wouldn’t even require a sixth minute to complete the task… but the army is committed to its constitutional role and supports democracy.”

So its capacity and ability to stage a takeover does not automatically translate into the army having the intent to seize power, though many, even in the political parties, would love to see such a situation developing.The fact is, since the country’s return to democracy in 2008, the army has not tried to rock the boat as a matter of policy, despite tensions and an ongoing atmosphere of distrust with the civilian rulers.

“The assertion that democracy is under threat in any way is wrong,” says senior political analyst and commentator, Zahid Hussain. “Democracy is not under threat. All this upheaval is part of the democratic process. There are always chances that institutions will find an equilibrium.”

The PML-N’s Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, also sees “no direct threat to democracy.

“But some political parties’ ability to use big money and buy  the electoral process remains a major threat for any transparent democratic process – as we witnessed in the Senate elections, which were marred by horse-trading,” he told Newsline.

When asked about the alleged conspiracies against democracy by some “hidden hands,” Syed said that any covert moves could only be successful if they were made in connivance with the political parties. “I would blame the political parties… in case of any such move, which can’t happen without the willing cooperation of the political parties.”

Qamar Zaman Kaira, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party’s (PPP) Central Punjab President, also rejected the notion of the alleged “shrinking space for democracy. Indeed, a lot of work is required to make democracy deliverable (to the people), but the PML-N and its leadership are the main culprits for weakening democracy as they have a history of undermining the parliament and partnering with dictators and extremists.”

So if there is no direct threat to democracy, with the PML-N government all set to complete its term — the second consecutive elected government to perform this feat — and elections scheduled in 2018, then why do some forces claim that democracy is in danger?

Mushahid Hussain

Is it because an elected prime minister — Nawaz Sharif — stands disqualified and faces jail if he gets convicted in any of the five corruption references filed against him and his family members in the accountability courts? Or is democracy weakened because the opposition parties — the PPP and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) — have managed to bury the hatchet, albeit temporarily, and along with dissidents within the PML-N, prevented the ruling party from getting its man elected as chairman Senate?

According to Fawad Chaudhry, the PTI spokesperson, the apparent weakness of democracy is the fallout from Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. “Our system works on the back of the executive arm, the judiciary and the army. If the political structure (executive arm) gets weak, as has happened, the judiciary and the army dominate, which gives the impression that democracy is on the retreat,” he said. “Had elections been called out immediately after Sharif’s disqualification, this situation wouldn’t have arisen.”

However, the very premise that democracy has weakened is debatable. The disqualification of a sitting prime minister and trial on corruption charges — when his own party remains in power — can be seen as a positive development, strengthening democracy, the system and institutions. This is the first time ever in Pakistan’s history that an all-powerful premier, like Sharif, has been forced out of office through constitutional and legal means.

This is also among those rare occasions in our history that the ruling party has smoothly brought in another man for the top post after the disqualification of its leader.

Yes, PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani was also disqualified in 2012 by the Superior Court, and the then ruling party brought in a replacement and finished its term, but the huge difference between then and now remains that unlike Gilani — who was a nominee of the party leader — Sharif was himself the head of the party. In that sense, Sharif is all-powerful, compared to Gilani during whose tenure the real authority was exercised by Asif Ali Zardari, who was, constitutionally, a lame-duck president after giving up the powers under 58-(2) B that empowered him to sack the elected government and dissolve the assemblies. But he continued to control the government as the head of the ruling party.

The disqualification of Sharif and his trial on corruption charges remains a bigger affair than that of Gilani’s disqualification and serves as a litmus

Yousuf Raza Gilani

test for the system, the government and the institutions. It has intensified friction within institutions, but also set a precedent that a wrongdoer can be tried and sacked, regardless of his position. In the past, top politicians only faced trial once out of power. And their trials and tribulations were seen more as a victimisation campaign than a fair and transparent accountability process. But Sharif faces accountability with his government in power, and so far, despite fierce attempts by his party stalwarts to save him and his family members, they remain in the dock. Additionally, the judiciary and other state institutions — despite constraints and manipulations by the executive authority — are pursing the accountability process against the Sharifs, signalling that finally efforts to establish the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution are gaining strength and momentum.

Sources say that Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, expressed his support for Nawaz Sharif when he was the prime minister. Bajwa had, according to sources, reiterated that he would support Sharif on any front, barring one: the Panama Scandal. And in regard to the government’s tussle with the judiciary, the army has taken a clear position that it will stand by the courts for the rule of law.

PPP’s Kaira maintains that Sharif and his party are fighting against democracy by trying to undermine the judiciary. “When Prime Minister (Shahid Khaqan Abbasi) says that courts can’t give them justice, they are, in fact, playing with democracy,” he said, referring to a speech delivered by Abbasi in Sargodha on March 30 in which he said that there was no hope of getting justice from the accountability courts.

Abbasi’s bosses, Sharif and his daughter and political heir apparent, Mariam Safdar, have also been vocal in criticising the judiciary and the institutions against the advice of many senior party leaders.

The issue of the Senate elections, that created a crescendo of allegations that democracy is under threat, must also be seen in the right context.

Zahid Hussain says that a combination of factors was responsible for the ruling party’s defeat in the Senate, including “the role of the establishment and the opportunistic alignment of the political forces opposed to Nawaz Sharif.”

According to the PPP’s Kaira, manipulation in the Senate elections has been a tradition in Pakistan and doubts have always been raised about the voting pattern of a few members. “There are allegations that the PPP and the PTI got more votes than their strength, but so has the PML-N. If the allegation that the PPP bought independents was true, they should have joined our party, but this has not happened.”

However, the pro-Sharif lobby says that the alleged manipulation in the Senate elections was aimed at limiting the effectiveness of the government and squeezing space for democratic forces. Mushahid Hussain Sayed says that even the PTI Chairman, Imran Khan, admits there was massive horse-trading in the Senate elections.

But are the charges being levelled by the PML-N the only reason for what transpired, as the followers of the Sharif camp would want us to believe? These accusations notwithstanding, what made the ruling party lose control of the Senate?

The answer to these questions perhaps lies in the fact that most political forces and elements within assorted institutions have long been wary of the “dictatorial mindset” of Sharif and the small clique around him that want to frame laws which are against the spirit of the constitution. The way the ruling party bulldozed an amendment allowing a disqualified and convicted person to lead a political party was just one example. The Supreme Court mercifully threw out this amendment, but the PML -N continues to make efforts to enact laws benefiting an individual against the basic ethos of democracy and the constitution. Speculation is rife that if the PML -N manages to dominate both houses, it will go for legislation limiting the independence and autonomy of the judiciary and make laws that protect and safeguard politicians involved in corruption.

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa

In Pakistan, the issue is not that democracy is under threat, but how to make it pro-people and prevent vested interests from bending laws and distorting the constitution to benefit individuals, condone corruption and perpetuate their rule.

It is ironic that all the mainstream political parties have, in one way or another, played a role in undermining democracy by narrowing its definition just to holding elections and the rule of the majority. In doing so, they overlook fulfilling other conditions which make democracy work, including the spirit of inclusiveness, accountability, transparency, pro-people legislation, democracy within parties, devolution of power to the local government level and merit.

And yes, democracy only thrives when there is a rule of law and political players are prepared to abide by it. No wonder, many critics of political parties view so-called democrats as the biggest enemies of democracy in Pakistan.

Since for the first time the powerful are being held accountable, the process may appear skewed, but it is setting a precedent. And if democracy is to sustain and deliver, the juggernaut of accountability has to expand in the coming days to include other politicians as well.

“If Pakistan is to become a normal state, the rule of law and the writ of the state is imperative,” said a senior military official in his informal briefing.

Certainly the survival of democracy cannot and should not be linked to one person or family. Analysts contend that if Sharif is sent to jail, the country’s institutions would ensure that the system continues to work smoothly. PPP’s Kaira claims that if there is justice, he sees Nawaz Sharif going to the Adiala Jail. And for the PTI’s Fawad Chaudry too, Sharif’s political future appears sealed.

Zahid Hussain, however, maintains that one should never write off a political leader. According to him, “Despite the fact that Sharif is in trouble, he still is the most powerful leader in Pakistan.”

Mushahid Hussain Sayed also challenges the claim that Nawaz Sharif has landed in a blind alley. “Such prophecies proved wrong in the past and will again be proven wrong,” he said. “When Ghulam Ishaq Khan ousted Sharif, there were claims that the party was over for him, but that did not happen. Again, when he went into exile in Saudi Arabia, similar claims were made, only to be proved wrong. Now Sharif is again being written off following his disqualification, but he will bounce back; his narrative is gaining ground.”

Apart from the conflicting predictions about Sharif’s future, for now the former prime minister appears cornered. There is increasing pressure on him from within the party to lower the political temperature as the institutions appear adamant to hold him accountable for his past alleged financial misdeeds, as evidenced by the Panama Papers. While Sharif’s future role in politics remains uncertain, his party still has a role to play in the system, provided the adventurous streak of a few within it can be curtailed and managed.

Sharif’s predicaments won’t derail democracy, despite all its weaknesses, flaws and failure to live up to the expectations of the people. This due to the institutional consensus that the system should work.

With this backdrop, 2018 will be an election year in Pakistan, albeit a messy one. All the major institutional players and the mainstream parties appear on one page regarding the polls. And the change of guard in a democratic manner for the third consecutive time will be done amid increasing pressure on the political parties to clean up their stables and improve their game.

According to Mushahid Hussain Sayed, there is no other alternative but to hold elections. “Pakistan is a complicated federation, facing national security threats on both the eastern and western fronts… the only way forward is elections, which will protect and guarantee the federation. Political parties unite Pakistan by cutting across barriers of provincialism, ethnicity and sectarianism.”

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.