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Emerging challenges to democracy —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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hasanaskriIf the PPP and some other political leaders could benefit from the NRO, let the president use his constitutional powers to provide relief to the PMLN, which will definitely reduce the growing polarisation in the political systemPakistan’s nascent democracy is threatened by the planned effort of the lawyers’ movement and some political parties to challenge the government in the streets. These groups have decided to adopt extra-parliamentary methods to advance their political agenda at a time when parliament is functioning. It seems they have lost confidence in parliament and want to advance their partisan agenda by returning to the traditional Pakistan politics of acrimony, conflict and free-for-all –struggle.


These groups may or may not succeed in achieving their declared goals, but either way, Pakistan’s new democracy will suffer a credibility crisis. Extra-parliamentary political strategies always weaken democracy, especially in countries that have a poor democratic track record and have also experienced extra-parliamentary and unconstitutional political changes.

The lawyers’ latest decision to adopt a hard line towards the government reflects their desire to sustain their momentum in the face of two setbacks. They have lost the support of pro-PPP lawyers and most of the ousted judges have agreed to return to their respective courts as new appointments while retaining their original seniority. The lawyers’ movement has rejected the new appointment strategy.

The lawyers’ movement leadership wants the restoration of the ousted chief justice and a few other judges who either did not opt for or were not offered the new appointment option. Their plan for a “long march” to Islamabad and a “dharna” (sit-in) until the ousted judges are restored is an attempt to consolidate the movement and erase the criticism of the last long march to Islamabad in 2008.

The lawyers’ position is strengthened by the support of at least three political parties, i.e. Jama’at-e Islami, Tehreek-e Insaf Pakistan and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, that plan to join the lawyers’ march to Islamabad. The JI and TIP did not contest the 2008 elections and thus do not have a stake in the current democratic political order. The JI has already demanded new elections.

The PMLN’s decision to join the lawyers’ movement is most significant because it has strong political following in the Punjab. Further, the Punjab government is led by the PMLN and is expected to facilitate the long march and sit-in. If the Punjab government openly supports the lawyers, the PPP, a coalition partner in the Punjab, will take strong exception to this move. In fact, it may attempt to dislodge the PMLN government before the lawyers’ march by joining hands with the PMLQ and others. This will intensify political tension.

The PMLN’s decision to support the lawyers is shaped by its disappointment with the PPP-led federal government. Two issues are at the core of the problem: the PPP effort to destabilise the PMLN government in the Punjab and the threat of disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif in the on-going legal proceedings in the Supreme Court, whose legitimacy is disputed by the Sharif brothers. Some PMLN leaders have already declared that they will not accept a disqualification decision.

These two factors hold the key to the PMLN’s disposition towards the PPP as well as the future of the present democratic dispensation. If the PPP government shows some accommodation on these issues, the PMLN is not expected to openly and fully support the lawyers’ march. It will also be willing to adopt an accommodating posture on the 17th Constitutional Amendment, although it will continue to insist on the reduction of presidential powers.

The lawyers and some political parties have decided to take on the government at a time when it is faced with strong external pressures from India and the United States. It is also facing challenges from militant groups in the tribal areas, Swat and other parts of Pakistan. Such a troubled external and internal situation demands that all Pakistani political and societal forces join hands to confront these challenges.

Instead, these groups have adopted a posture that will increase problems for the government. It will adversely affect the government’s capacity to address domestic internal pressures and cope with external challenges.

If it is the responsibility of the political and societal groups to downplay their partisan agendas in view of the current internal and external challenges, the PPP-led federal government should also adopt an accommodating posture towards other political forces.

Democracy is not an arena for the politics of self-righteousness. No political party or group can claim that its political agenda represents the ultimate truth or reality, and that it would not accommodate other perspectives. This is not democratic politics. Democracy expects that contending political forces evolve a shared approach to problems through dialogue and accommodation. Such a shared approach may not be in strict consonance with a specific theoretical formulation. Rather, it must be acceptable to as many groups and interests as possible. A widely supported policy has the highest probability of promoting political coherence, stability and continuity.

The lawyers’ decision to use extra-parliamentary methods is not conducive to sustaining democracy in Pakistan. The disposition of the political parties supporting the lawyers not helpful to Pakistan’s new democracy either. Instead of moderating the situation and facilitating compromise, these parties are encouraging confrontation between the government and the lawyers.

If the PMLN or other political parties were genuinely serious about restoring the ousted chief justice, they should have moved a resolution in the National Assembly and Senate. Alternatively, they could have moved an adjournment motion for a debate on the issue.

Instead, they decided to support the lawyers’ plans to challenge the government in the streets. One wonders if this is so because the PMLN does not have much confidence in its capacity to pursue the matter through parliament or it has decided to support the lawyers’ march in order to pressure the federal government with reference to its partisan agenda. Or whether it is getting even with the federal government for not honouring the commitments it made in the past.

The federal government needs to adopt measures to avoid the possibility of confrontation with these political forces. The PPP should tone down its belligerent disposition towards the PMLN-led Punjab government and behave as a genuine partner in the coalition. Another gesture would be to neutralise the threat of disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif.

A useful suggestion has been made by a non-partisan group of citizens under the auspices of an NGO devoted to promoting the cause of democracy, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). They requested the prime minister to advise the president to exercise his constitutional powers “to efface the convictions” of Nawaz Sharif in order to “reduce the developing political tension that has the potential of de-railing the democratic dispensation.”

If the PPP and some other political leaders could benefit from the NRO, let the president use his constitutional powers to provide relief to the PMLN, which will definitely reduce the growing polarisation in the political system. This will also minimise extra-parliamentary pressure on Pakistani democracy. Pakistan’s salvation lies in sustaining and consolidating democracy, which is possible only by cooperative interaction among the major political forces.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Article reproduced by permission of DT\02\08\story_8-2-2009_pg3_2

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