March Issue 2018
We always knew that Pakistan’s democracy was on a short leash. However, it is now becoming clear how short that leash can be. The latest Supreme Court order against Nawaz Sharif does not punish him as much as it hits the citizens’ right — to form political parties and to organise them for removal of their grievances.
Nobody has defended or can defend the government of Nawaz Sharif as an embodiment of democratic values. At best, it could be described as a discounted and imperfect version of democratic governance. Most of the governments preceding it fell in the same category. Thus the real issue in Pakistan has, all along, been the search for a democratic and constitutionally valid transition to genuinely representative governance.
All the military adventurers who seized power claimed that their treacherous intervention was meant to establish true democracy. We know how far away from democracy the country was taken by them. Experience taught us that replacement of an imperfect democracy with authoritarian rule wasn’t progress, nor could this label be given to a corrupt dictatorship that seized power from corrupt rulers in a nominal democracy.
As a result, the most popular slogan of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) during the Zia dictatorship was that replacement of an imperfect democracy with an authoritarian regime could not be an adequate answer to the people’s democratic aspirations.
That genuine democracy cannot be established only by resolutions in the Parliament, or by judicial edicts, is a fact known to every student of politics. Only by persevering with the democratic system that has been shaped by Pakistan’s political culture and the socially stratified community can we move step-by-step towards our democratic ideal. An essential condition is that the boat of imperfect democracy is neither rocked nor steered by anyone on horseback. Indeed, we might have been far ahead of where we are today had the fledgling democracy not been sent packing after every few years of the state’s existence.
However, the country’s progress towards the ideal of democracy can only be guaranteed by a consensus among political parties — especially those that have a large public following — on democratic ideals. There has to be a compact among the democratic-minded groups — more effectively implementable than the Charter of Democracy — that they will strive for the establishment of a representative rule that is responsive to public aspirations and responsible in its conduct. But will the politicians be allowed to address this task?
The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Panama Case, whereby Nawaz Sharif was thrown out of the prime minister’s office, was criticised both at home and abroad on grounds that the establishment was punishing the prime minister, not for corruption, but for his habit of deviating from the dotted line in certain matters. In relation to the policy towards India, for instance.
Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to quietly accept the Supreme Court verdict was not liked by many people — though many others lauded his courage to stand up against his persecutors, especially those outside the judiciary. The establishment responded by encouraging defections from the PML-N in the legislatures, as they did not want the Sharif party to become the largest group in the Senate after the elections, which are scheduled for March 3.
The Supreme Court order of February 21, whereby Nawaz Sharif has been held ineligible to head his party, has also affected the PML-N’s right to contest the Senate elections under the party banner. The Election Commission’s decision to allow PML-N nominees to contest Senate seats as independents, was not the only option before it. The ECP could have found a way to ensure that the PML-N took part in the election as a party.
The Senate elections are like a mathematical exercise. If the members of the electoral college vote according to party mandates, the winners can easily be identified. Any deviation from the mathematically probable result will give us an idea of votes purchased by the richer candidates. Not much good can be expected from the members of the Senate who buy their seats by outbidding other contenders in the auction mart. If the ouster of the PML-N as a party from the electoral contest increases the scale of horse-trading, the polity’s loss is obvious.
The Supreme Court’s February 21 order begins by recalling the opening part of the Objectives Resolution and goes on to declare:
“An elected parliament, adorned with the chosen representatives of the people on the one hand and rule of law on the other hand, are the foundations of democracy under the constitution. Articles 62, 63 and 63-A of the constitution create an integrated framework for ensuring that the business of the parliament is conducted by persons of probity, integrity and high moral character. These conditions are enforced by Articles 62, 63 of the constitution by prescribing qualifications and disqualifications for membership to the parliament. All laws pertaining to the election to Parliament and to participation in the proceedings thereof, are to be read subject to such constitutional provisions in the exercise of the rights guaranteed by Article 17 of the Constitution.”
In the above excerpt, the disconnect between the first three sentences and the fourth one, is easily visible. If the idea is to put articles 62 and 63 in control of the whole constitution, and the principle of reading the articles of the constitution, together, is to be given up, then we get an intriguing situation. The judiciary appears to have taken up Zia-ul-Haq’s agenda of establishing a theocracy, and Nawaz Sharif only suffers collateral damage.
But Nawaz Sharif is not the only person who will pay the cost. As the dark clouds of autocracy — based on the most conservative interpretation of Islam — gather on the horizon, there will be little ground to expect the state of Pakistan to become a functional democracy, at least in the foreseeable future.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.