February issue 2012

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 12 years ago

When you pause to contemplate the state of the nation, with this surge in radical Islam and dark intimations of a social breakdown, the prospect of disaster looms large. But how would you react when it is asserted by some very perceptive and serious analysts that the future of democracy in Pakistan was never as bright as it is now?

We do, in our subjective and partisan ways, constantly review the quality of democracy and the performance of the ‘democratic’ government. Talk shows on our news channels and columns in the popular newspapers are saturated with these analyses. And the general impression is that our democracy does not work. The inclination, naturally, is to seek the fruits of democracy in the lives of the ordinary people. By that yardstick, democracy is bound to get very poor grades. For many, the ready answer may be that it has failed.

Yet, I have been part of a solemn and methodical exercise to assess the quality of democracy in Pakistan and the findings are, well, quite encouraging. It seems that the future of democracy is bright. Irrespective of how disturbing its activism is for some observers, the independence of the higher judiciary is a remarkable gain in our democratic strivings. Our political parties are more mature and the parliament has improved its performance. Very significantly, the electoral system is being overhauled to raise the potential for more free and transparent elections.

The exercise I am referring to was sponsored by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) with the formation of a Democracy Assessment Group, comprising over 20 members. The process was based on an international democracy assessment framework. In that sense, a quantitative evaluation was made on detailed questions in such designated areas as “rule of law, rights and citizenship,” “representative and accountable government,” “civil society and popular participation” and “democracy beyond the state.”

What I found highly instructive and intellectually gratifying was the discussion that would take place in the meetings of the group, representing different perspectives and areas of expertise. Findings of the ‘Assessment of the Quality of Democracy in Pakistan: Year 2011’ were announced in Lahore on January 27, in a five-page statement. The entire report, exceeding one hundred pages, has now been issued by PILDAT.

As for the scorecard, the Group has given democracy in Pakistan an overall score of 49%, almost passing marks by common standards. In the previous assessment by the group in September 2010, the group had given our democracy 45 percent marks. Incidentally, ‘Civil Society and Popular Participation’ received the highest score of 53%, with no change from 2010. ‘Democracy Beyond the State’ received the second highest score of 52%, compared to 43% in 2010. ‘Citizenship, Law and Rights’ received a score of 49 percent, an improvement from 46 percent in 2010. ‘Representative and Accountable Government’ got 47 percent, compared to 43 percent in 2010.

Hence, it was possible for the Group to state that “democracy in Pakistan has made incremental progress.” It identified six factors that have energised the process of democracy. At the same time, it pointed towards poor governance as “the most potent threat to the quality of democracy in Pakistan, sliding from bad to worse in 2011.”

With reference to the positive aspects, priority was accorded to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution as “a step towards a more democratic future.” It has opened the door for the devolution of power to the provinces. Another positive factor is the independent judiciary. The statement noted that “despite the view in some quarters that the Supreme Court sometimes oversteps its constitutional mandate, the higher courts have caught the imagination of the citizens as their instrument to hold rulers accountable.”

The Group also found commendable the formation of the Election Commission through a bi-partisan Parliamentary Committee and electoral reforms undertaken by the Election Commission. It felt that the efforts to compile comprehensive electoral rolls and to achieve the goal of ‘one CNIC, one vote’ are steps in the right direction.

The role of the media, expectedly, was the subject of detailed discussion. The Group agreed to say that “the news media has become more pervasive, diverse and competitive, even if it is not always transparent in matters relating to their financial sources or fair and balanced in their treatment of various political forces.” It noted that the news media “have successfully engaged large sections of the population in the affairs of the state.” An Increase in the threats to the lives and safety of journalists from state and non-state actors was also noted.

While acknowledging the improvement in the processes and prospects for sustainable democracy in Pakistan, the Group was categorical in saying that the elected governments have yet to deliver ‘good governance,’ ‘economic growth’ and ‘welfare’ to the people of Pakistan. Among negative factors, the situation in Balochistan was highlighted.

Now, it should not be possible to review the state of democracy in the country without talking about corruption. The Group felt that “the perceived rampant corruption in the country and the government’s reluctance to make any efforts to control it are major causes of embarrassment for the supporters of democracy in the country.” One sub-pillar in the scorecard related to ‘public confidence in public officials and services’ and it received the lowest of all indicators: 28%.

Because the review was restricted to the year 2011, it was right in identifying the civil-military relations as a major source of concern. It is only incidental that by the last week of January, rising tensions between the civilian and the military institutions had suddenly eased. This development — whether it lasts or is overturned in the near future — has come as a further vindication of the process of democracy. However, the Group noted serious deterioration in civil-military relations during 2011.

The year 2011 witnessed “a civilian prime minister, seen as relatively weak, unexpectedly breaking conventional barriers on official comments about civil-military relations in Pakistan by terming the military as a ‘state within the state’ — an open public position that has never before been taken by any other prime minister of Pakistan.”

Without going into other details of the democracy scorecard and to identify, in more detail, the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the present process, it must be accepted that there is a great public support for democracy. For the first time in our history, there is no dominant political group willing to become a part of any covert attempt to bring back undemocratic and non-elected elements in the ruling alliance.

Does this mean that the security establishment, with the latest set-back it may have suffered in the Memogate scandal, is finally in retreat? We have to keep our fingers crossed. It is hard to imagine that the military will cede its dominance in the nation’s affairs to politicians who, on their part, are not able to provide good governance and efficient rule of law.

For the time being, however, two cheers for democracy in Pakistan.

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline.

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.