Enigma of democratic governance

Pakistan’s President Iskander Mirza (1956-58) is remarked to have said that democracy was ‘unsuited’ to the genius of Pakistani people. Decades later, similar questions about democratic form of governance are being raised in Pakistan. Take any TV show, multitude of op-eds, or more worryingly, check what the young people have to say on Facebook or Twitter. The parameters of debate remain the same.

The urban Pakistanis’ disdain for the ‘illiterate’, ‘rural’ politicians to rule the country is a running theme. More importantly, the duality of civil-military rule has generated a peculiar discourse: the weak and corrupt ‘civilians’ compromise national security as opposed to authoritarian regimes which guard ‘ideological’ and geographical borders of the country.

This is why we have seen civilian governments come and go, especially in the past two decades with charges of corruption and violation of national security. For instance, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, while dismissing Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1993, alluded to, among others, the charge of murdering General Asif Nawaz Janjua, the Army Chief. Benazir Bhutto till her last remained a ‘security risk’ even when she compromised her principles and fully supported and owned the Taliban policy of the 1990s. The grave sin of Nawaz Shairf in his second tenure was attempting to secure peace with India; and the gravest of all was allegedly plotting to kill the Army chief in 1999 by diverting his flight.

And now the ‘proof’ of this errant and traitorous behaviour is an unsigned memo sent to Americans to contain Pakistan Army. Since the matter is soon going to be subjected to an inquiry and perhaps judicial proceedings, it would be best not to speculate any further than what has been reported, or shall we say, trumpeted in the press. Prior to this, the provisions of Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid legislation (passed by the US Congress) were somehow considered to the handiwork of the civilian government. It eludes commonsense as to how can a civilian government be so powerful to influence a foreign legislature. But then, such tales require a willing suspension of disbelief.

The recent memogate saga, not unlike the past occasions, has accelerated the pace of rumour-mongering and has spurred obituaries of the civilian government. Perhaps even more than the change-rhetoric generated by the October 30 rally of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) where the memo and its alleged author Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani was named in public as an official who may have compromised ‘national interest’. Most media commentators are saying that a change is going to take place before March 2012 Senate elections and the gathering storm of opposition protests inquiries against the civilians to plot against the national security institutions, etc, are going to be the causes of this so-called ‘change’.

Media pundits have also deliberated on the various scenarios ranging from a government of technocrats, dismissal of top elected leadership through what is infamously known as the Kakar formula (forced resignations leading to an election) to resignation of the government and dissolution of National Assembly via street agitation. These extreme remedies involve some measure of extra-constitutional leverage and ‘force’, which would result in the political change. Pakistan is an unpredictable country, therefore, forecasting is best avoided. Nevertheless, certain imperatives of our overall state of nation need to be articulated.

First, this is a 3 and a half year old democratic order and undoing a legacy of decades and most importantly the decade under Musharraf is not going to happen overnight. Without essential agreements on rules of the game, democracy cannot take root. These rules of the game have been set in some pretty interesting ways during the past few years. The passage of 18th amendment means that there is a consensus within the political elites to govern Pakistan with a weaker centre. Any change to this wide consensus will be inimical to future development of the country. Are the political parties thinking about these issues?

Furthermore, the rise of PTI is a testament to a new political consciousness among the younger Pakistanis who constitute a major population and voting group in the country. With two thirds of Pakistan less than 26 years old, this is the time for changing and reshaping the political discourse and not indulging in smear campaigns or rolling back the democratic system in place. If the PTI is able to generate sufficient public support with a good number of electables it should rise as a third force in the country. And this is good for democracy. It is in the interest of PTI to use democratic and constitutional means (i.e a general election) to seek power. Pakistan’s history tells us that whatever we may say about the politicians and political parties, this route gives them the legitimacy in the long run.

The second imperative is the fragile state of security on our borders and within the country. The war, originally ill-designed to be localised in border regions, is now everywhere. No longer can it be handled via simplistic solutions (e g, end the drones and there will be peace or let the US go away and there will be no Taliban). In these circumstances, political players must not drag the army into civilian governance. Similarly, the civilian players and the radical elements within the civil society need to acknowledge that given the nature of the state, Pakistan Army will remain a major power centre and its influence will not wane by issuing statements or writing op-eds. The terms of power-sharing can alter in the short term but nothing beyond that is likely to happen.

Only continued democratic governance, strengthening of a pro-democracy public opinion and values of tolerance will allow for gradual attainment of civilian ascendancy. This is why both the alleged policies – of appeasement by PPP and ANP; and belligerence by PML-N – are not going to work. Until these parties stop pretending as more loyal than the King and agree to a common framework, this is how things are going to be in the short to medium terms. Therefore, revival of instruments such as Charter of Democracy or using constitutional committees to incrementally resolve thorny issues of power-imbalances is the best option available to the political elites.

Given that there is a year or so left in the tenure of federal and provincial governments, structural changes are not likely to happen. However, nothing stops the parties to agree on a common national agenda and involve the security establishment in this process. It may fail but it is better to undertake this exercise rather than play the charades of passing rhetorical, nationalistic parliamentary resolutions or declarations which are at the end of the day lines from a standard Pakistani textbook.

Things are fluid at this stage but it would not be wrong to say that rolling back civilian governance is neither affordable nor feasible. A technocratic government beyond ninety days will require judicial sanction; and the Honourable Chief Justice has ruled out ratification of unconstitutional acts, as was the case in the past.

A noisy and ubiquitous media is also a new phenomenon to handle for any government; and given Pakistan’s state of affairs how long will the clean technocrats manage the media? Most importantly, the new electoral rolls, which are being prepared to strike out the bogus or dubious votes, are not going to be ready before June 2012. This date is seven months away; so why this rumpus?

Instead of competing via rallies, the political parties may like to devote a fraction of their energies on their mandates, their policy plans, and how are they going to rescue Pakistan from the current mess of uncertainty, poverty, inequality and insecurity. As rational political players pitching for long-term influence, this is what is going to salvage them and their stakes in system. Backdoor entries, coups, technocrats have all been tried and they failed to deliver. Can we please learn something from the past instead of repeating it as a farce?


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