It has been less than a year since Pakistan began its current transition to democracy. Yet some political leaders and commentators have already started to predict its doom. Some such elements, known for their anti-PPP disposition, have predicted that 2009 is going to be the year of change, though they did not specify if they were talking about the PPP government or the democratic system or both.
Democracy is a delicate system of governance that requires careful nurturing over a long period of consolidation. It faces more problems in a country that has experienced extended phases of authoritarian rule. Invariably, authoritarian rule creates beneficiaries who find themselves irrelevant when the country returns to democracy and thus engage in a whispering campaign against participatory governance. They exploit the lapses and weaknesses of the elected civilian government and question the viability of democracy in Pakistan.
Democracy can succeed only if political leaders maintain a strong commitment to democracy in both theory and practice. Despite differences on policies, they must work together to sustain the system by respecting and practicing democracy and constitutionalism.
A major weakness of democracy is that it can be destroyed through democratic means. For example, democracy functions on the principle of majority rule. However, winning a majority in the election does not give the government licence to pursue any policies. Majority rule can easily be turned into tyranny of the majority if the legitimate rights and interests of political minorities and the principles and spirit of democracy are violated.
Political majorities and minorities have to function within the ambit of law and the constitution, and the majority must respect and accommodate the rights of the minority. Similarly, the minority needs to respect the right of the majority to rule, and should not oppose it for the sake of opposition. The hallmarks of democracy are tolerance, accommodation and the peaceful and constitutional handling of public policy issues.
Pakistan’s return to democracy earlier this year after over 8 years of military-dominated authoritarian rule was a major triumph made possible by the coordinated efforts of societal groups and political parties. The military also contributed to this change by adopting a non-partisan posture, and the army chief held back the ISI from interfering in the electoral process.
Pakistan’s experiment with representative governance is under pressure from the beneficiaries of the long years of authoritarian rule. These forces have no stake in the continuation of the current political process and are ideologically opposed to the present political and constitutional arrangements.
Four factors have created doubts about the viability of the current arrangement: growing confrontation between the two major parties — the PPP and the PMLN; unsatisfactory performance of the government; the economic crisis; and the escalating threat posed by terrorism to internal security and stability.
The most disturbing development is that many, including those who held top civil and military posts in the past, do not see militancy as a threat to Pakistan due to their ideologically tilted worldview, political expediency and linkages with various militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.
The PPP and the PMLN maintain a multi-track relationship dominated by mutual distrust and acrimony that often cancel out their efforts to strengthen democracy and constitutionalism. The Sharif brothers are cautions in commenting on the PPP government, especially on the latter’s refusal to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
However, several close associates of the Sharifs miss no opportunity to take on the PPP. The November 12 National Assembly speech of the PMLN’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was a stinging censure of the PPP government and President Asif Zardari, alleging misrule and personalisation of power. Chaudhry Nisar maintained that there was hardly any difference between the Musharraf regime and the PPP government.
Similarly, the PPP leadership is favourably disposed towards maintaining a working relationship with the PMLN. However, some leaders of the PPP in the Punjab have engaged in sharp criticism of the PMLN, and have tried to extract as much political dividend as possible to stay in the Shahbaz Sharif-led coalition government in the province. If the current working relationship between the two parties breaks down in the Punjab, they would literally be at each other’s throats.
The periodic manifestation of distrust and acrimony between the two major parties is a major obstacle to the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan. Even if they continue to diverge in their political agendas, they need to recognise that unrestrained confrontation would equally undermine the interests of the two parties and threaten the future of democracy.
Poor governance on the part of the PPP-led government is another cause of the current dissatisfaction. The high-flying people-oriented rhetoric of the PPP leadership has not been backed by effective policies to realise their promises. Two major examples of poor governance are the inability of the government to control the prices of essential items, and the raise in electricity rates that had to be lowered after protests broke out in many cities.
The working of the federal government creates the impression that it lacks an operational plan to move in a specific political direction. The presidency seems to be commanding the government rather than the prime minister. This partly explains why the government has so far not initiated the promised constitutional changes, as they would clip the wings of the presidency. Similarly, the government has so far not given any indication that it will enhance the administrative and financial autonomy of the provinces.
The economic crisis and the government’s helplessness to cope with it without foreign assistance limits the government’s capacity to cope with internal socio-economic problems. Pakistan’s dependence on external assistance limits its domestic and foreign policy options, reinforcing the impressing that the government is not the master of its own house.
The economic crisis calls for a serious economic austerity drive by the government, however, it is doubtful if it is seriously working towards reducing unnecessary expenditures.
The final challenge to the endurance of the current democratic order comes from religious intolerance and militancy that threatens internal security and stability. Militants based in the tribal areas are openly flouting the authority of the state and they have turned the area into a sanctuary for elements that perpetrate violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Democracy cannot flourish in a strife-ridden and violent socio-political context. However, several political leaders do not recognise this inverse relationship between terrorism and democracy. Some well-known parties are opposed to the government’s efforts to control extremism and terrorism, and demand the immediate suspension of military action against terrorists based in the tribal areas.
Pakistan is fortunate to have returned to democracy after long periods of direct and indirect military rule. However, it would be premature to suggest that democracy has developed strong roots in Pakistan. It faces many challenges that cannot be addressed unless major political and societal groups work together within a democratic framework to deal with acute socio-economic issues, control religious and cultural intolerance and neutralise militants that are using violence to advance their agenda.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Reproduced with permission of DT