April issue 2010

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 14 years ago

In Pakistan, the critics of democracy often lose the forest for the trees by blaming the apparent errors of individual politicians on democracy itself. Be it the present PPP government or previous democratically elected regimes in the 1990s, discontent with a particular government or party in power has often translated into doubts about the appropriateness of electoral democracy and, by default, a new search for non-democratic solutions. Take the most recent executive-judiciary deadlock over the appointment of superior court judges, which became an occasion for predicting the imminent collapse of the political system. These predictions as we now know did not come to pass.

Granted, the government (and the judiciary) could have prevented the issue from escalating into a full-blown crisis. But missteps and miscalculations are part and parcel of the political process, even in long-standing democracies — as is holding elected politicians accountable for their actions. Public expectations of their elected politicians understandably run high and can be easily disappointed by political conflict and compromise. However, this need not translate into throwing the baby out with the bath water.

With the obvious caveat that Pakistan is a transitional democracy, an instructive case is offered by US President Barack Obama’s rising and falling popularity graph within the span of a year of his election. Obama’s presidential campaign and his message of change galvanised millions of Americans frustrated with the economic, political and diplomatic toll Bush’s two terms in office had taken on the country. It was this message of change that swept him into power in 2008 with an overwhelming majority over Republican candidate John McCain. A year on, much has changed and his charismatic aura has dimmed in the eyes of a majority of American voters. In recent months, his detractors have accused him of failing to adequately address the economic problems facing the country.

Since then the pros and cons of Obama’s various policy initiatives have been hotly debated and his performance constantly held up to scrutiny, both by Democrats and Republicans. However, in a consolidated democracy like the US, even while partisan passions erupt, they are managed within the broad institutional contours of the system. Not so the case in a fledgling democracy like Pakistan where real or exaggerated political turmoil has usually given way to coups and decades-long spells of military rule. The current elected PPP government is facing similar challenges, not entirely of its own making. Being in power since 2008, it (read: President Asif Ali Zardari) has become the bull’s eye for all that ails the country.

Lest we forget, the PPP assumed power at a difficult time in the country’s history. The party won the 2008 elections, but it was a bittersweet victory, one that was overshadowed by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. President Zardari not only had a tough act to follow but also a difficult mandate to fulfill — consolidating democracy at a time when the country’s political institutions had been hollowed out by nearly a decade of military rule. A year-and-a half later, he has failed to deliver on the understandably high public expectations from democratic rule and has become the lightning rod for bitter resentment over economics, internal security and US policies towards Pakistan. In the past few months, he has been criticised for the government’s rampant corruption and incompetence and accused of consolidating power in his person through the office of the president, thus undermining the essence of the parliamentary system. But despite the government’s failings, and there are many, its short rule has also seen significant, and under-appreciated, reforms. These include changes in the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) which allows political parties to function in FATA, extends judicial recourse to its people and curtails the powers of political agents. Another significant step was the passage of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009 which aims to provide internal autonomy and self-governance to the region through an elected legislature. In December 2009, the government signed the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) Award under which it pledged to distribute financial resources to the provinces not only on the single criterion of population but taking into account poverty, backwardness and population density. Recently the government passed the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2009, which stipulates greater rights for women in the workplace, enhances the punishments for “insult to the modesty of women” and provides a mechanism through which women can address related grievances. While the above reforms are not perfect and their efficacy depends on their timely implementation, their significance should not be overlooked.

With the army continuing to cast its long shadows over the political system, we need to remind ourselves that the problems Pakistan currently faces were not created by the PPP, nor can they be addressed overnight. Repeated military intervention and rule have severely weakened civilian institutions and also deprived civilian politicians of developing the skills to govern. Additionally, the maintenance of “reserve domains” by the military in foreign and domestic policies even after it exits from power, further curtails the autonomy of civilian rulers and hampers the prospects of democratic consolidation.

If the past is any guide, military rule, not democracy, has been the main culprit.

Sustainable reforms and change will only come about through the democratic process, not by subverting it. The PPP government needs to ensure that such a scenario does not come about. It can do so by articulating and conveying its agenda much more clearly and forcefully, highlighting its achievements thus far and, most importantly, taking concrete steps to address its failings. Sticking to its own deadline of March 23 for implementing the Charter of Democracy and repealing the 17th amendment will be a critical step in that direction. That is the need of the hour and the only feasible way forward.

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