Understanding Pakistan Project Team October 2nd, 2007
Guest Post By: Syed Sharfuddin
ON the issue of Pakistan’s democracy and whether it is still in transition, there are three distinct views. The view from the GHQ is that democracy is a form of government necessary to run a country, but when the country is about to become a failed state then democracy takes a backseat. What comes first is the survival of the country and its ability to serve its citizens.
No one can argue with this reasoning except that it has been raised too often and supported only by one institution. The question we should be asking instead is: can democracy guarantee Pakistan’s strength and development or does it need to be tailored to first ensure Pakistan’s integrity and stability?
The second view is held by the political parties, especially those which are not in government or have not been able to form a government due to the failure of their negotiations with the military. Their view is that Pakistan has never been a democracy in the real sense of the word. Whenever a prime minister tried to act independently and in accordance with the Constitution, he or she was sent home packing. More significantly, the exit of such prime ministers was managed not through an election but by other means.
The third view is a middle ground between these two extremes and acknowledges that there has been steady progress in the restoration of democracy in Pakistan since the military took over the country in October 1999 — but that this is not enough. If Pakistan is to continue to make progress on the road to democracy, a lot more must be done such as establishing the complete supremacy of elected institutions over the institutions of state, symbolised by separation of the two offices held by the president.
This is also the position of the international community. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was enjoying game in the Hawange National Park in Zimbabwe in 1991 when a few hundred kilometres away his peers attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting adopted the famous Harare Commonwealth Declaration committing their governments to uphold the Commonwealth principles of democracy, rule of law, human rights, good governance, independence of the judiciary, media freedoms and gender equality.
Four years later, President Farooq Leghari witnessed the establishment of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group when heads again declared that any member country found to be in serious or persistent violations of the Harare principles would be suspended from the association. Pakistan was subjected to this commitment after the military takeover of October 1999 and was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth.
The military government in Islamabad did not like the Commonwealth. A few nationalist opinion leaders even suggested that Pakistan should quit an association which had dared to interfere in its domestic affairs. Pakistan’s political parties and civil society, on the other hand, appreciated the Commonwealth’s principled stand on democracy. Pakistan’s suspension was lifted in May 2004 after the Commonwealth democracy watchdog — the CMAG — concluded that the LFO issue had been resolved through a parliamentary process and that Pakistan had an elected parliament and government which were functioning smoothly.
CMAG also concluded that Pakistan had made considerable progress by holding local government and parliamentary elections and introduced reforms for women’s empowerment and media freedoms. Despite this positive assessment CMAG was not fully satisfied with the state of democracy in Pakistan and decided to keep Pakistan on CMAG’s formal agenda until such time that the two offices held by the president were separated by the end of December 2004 which did not happen.
At the same time parliament passed an act allowing President Musharraf to keep the two offices until the end of his term as president. Giving Pakistan the benefit of doubt and appreciating its continued engagement with the Commonwealth, CMAG took the unprecedented step of placing a rather long timeline on Pakistan (November 2007) to separate the two offices.
This was not a popular decision within the Commonwealth. A group of countries which were very bitter about Zimbabwe’s voluntary withdrawal from the association, following the controversy whether President Mugabe deserved the same treatment as a military dictator which he was not, felt that the Commonwealth took a lenient view of Pakistan because President Musharraf was a friend of the West for strategic reasons which Mugabe was not. This timeline expires in November, the same month when heads of government will be meeting in Kampala for their next CHOGM in 2007.
Someone has compared democracy with Chinese cuisine which has acquired its own distinct local taste wherever it has travelled. Others compare it to a plant which is transplanted in different soils.
To a degree this is fair comparison. But often there is a tendency to put a curtain on glaring violations of human rights and democracy in the name of national circumstances.
In Pakistan no one can explain why its experiment with democracy has not reached fruition. Its neighbour India, which offers Pakistan every reason to compete with it, has become the largest democracy in the world. Although it has its own problems and a chequered democratic history, India has not experienced the overthrow of a democratically elected government by the military.
Pakistan’s other close South Asian neighbour, Bangladesh started off on shaky grounds after Sheikh Mujib introduced the one-party system which led to a number of coups.
However, since 1996, Bangladesh has solved its political problems without the involvement of the army. It is to the credit of Bangladesh that despite being the youngest nation in the region, it has done very well on the democratic path.
Since independence, civilian and military governments have continued to take turns roughly in succession of about 10 years. The civilian decades in Pakistan can be roughly described as the period from 1947 to 1958, from 1972 to 1977 and from 1988 to 1999. Military cycles ran from 1958 to 1969, from 1977 to 1988 and from 1999 to 2002.
The period from 2002 to date can be described as a civilian government where the president is more powerful than the chief executive by virtue of the several offices he holds: as head of state, as the operational head of the army, as the chairman of National Security Council, as the chief patron of the ruling PML (Q) and as the final authority to invoke the reintroduced Article 58.2.b in the Constitution, if required.
Another characteristic of Pakistan’s democracy is the composition of its power-brokers. The four important power-brokers in Pakistan include the ministries which are run by civil servants who sing to their political bosses only that tune which they like to hear.
The second is the military which espouses the philosophy of manifest destiny. The third is the mullahs. They have street power and the radical vote. They can also keep a government preoccupied with issues for a long time even though they themselves can never form government on their own. The fourth important power-broker consists of the tribal leaders, landlords and industrialists. Most of these are an extension of the feudal families which once ruled Pakistan.
It is remarkable that despite the high number of military takeovers Pakistan has experienced, the coups have been without bloodshed and welcomed by the people initially, including opposition political parties. These takeovers do not happen overnight. The government is given sufficient warning shots through statements and intermediaries before prime ministers are sent home.
In other words the coups come after the writing on the wall becomes visible to all those who worry about the health of the state and the country and are therefore not surprised when the inevitable eventually happens.
Another feature of our democracy is that when coups happen it is claimed that it is only a temporary measure which was forced by national circumstances and that the military would hand over power to an elected government by a certain date. Then the national circumstances change to justify the continuation of the status quo for as long as the military finds it necessary.
This essay will be incomplete without mentioning that the political parties too have failed in their responsibility to keep the military away from politics. Political parties as an institution have not yet developed in this country.
They remain the pastime of rich individuals who get supporters and cronies around them to keep their business flourishing. The top party position is held by either one person or one family. Even internal elections have not changed this culture of uninterrupted allegiance to one fountainhead of power as long as that person is alive.
Politics is seen in Pakistan as business. Until the last election when powers had not been devolved to local government levels, the formula worked like this: you invest Rs50 million in an election and when you come to power you recover your investment and make another Rs50 million or Rs100 million on top of it.
Ironically, this happens in other democracies too but the difference is that in other countries there is a cap on what you can make in power. In Pakistan there is no higher ceiling. Also, there is no concept of increasing the size of the pie in order to share it more widely.
The military seems to have understood this principle well and therefore in sharing the spoils of power with the people, it has done better than past democratic governments.
The writer is a former special adviser for political affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. This article was published in the Daily Dawn and is being reproduced here for the purpose of generating a debate.