Essay Failure Of Democracy In Pakistan Is The Conspiracy

The curren­t politi­cal enviro­nment portra­ys Pakist­an as an exampl­e of Huntin­gton’s third wave democr­acy

The writer is a former lecturer of international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad and Loyola University, Chicago. The views expressed here are her own.

The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court on Panama leaks that disqualified Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister has greatly stirred the country’s political environment and has set in motion various political forces with their standpoints. The post-disqualification politics of Sharif seems to centre on the rejection of the court’s verdict as the decision has violated the “sanctity of vote” and the judges have “conspired to derail democracy.” The facts however negate any such claims and do not correspond well with these allegations as the democratic system is very much intact. There was no overthrow of the government by any general, the PML-N’s government is fully functional, the Constitution, Parliament, and other related institutions are working as well. Moreover, the ex-PM has all the liberty to speak out his heart, even condemning the judiciary is not taken as a contempt of court by the Lahore High Court.

Democracy has not been derailed nor seemingly is there a threat to democracy at the moment but there are serious challenges for the ex-PM with reference to core essentials of democratic norms. Equating any personal challenges regarding transparency, accountability and good governance with a “threat to democracy” is indicative of personality-based politics and a weak internal democratic structure within political parties along with a disregard for the rule of law. This approach on behalf of elected leaders is not only dangerous for democracy, but it also creates a lot of confusion in national and international circles and makes experts on Pakistani politics raise concerns about the erosion in public support for democracy. This concern however, is not valid as the people of Pakistan have made huge sacrifices for the restoration of democracy at different points in time; against the dictatorial regimes of Gen Ayub Khan, Gen Ziaul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf. Specifically during the most tyrannical rule of Gen Zia when a large number of Pakistanis (many in their prime youth) were behind bars, persecuted and executed.

This commentary advances on the proposition that there is no erosion of public support for democracy in Pakistan, but there is an erosion of democracy, as Samuel P. Huntington theorises, by the “political leaders and groups, who win elections, take power, and manipulate the mechanisms of democracy to curtail or destroy democracy.” Further to reinforce the argument, the current military doctrine of nonintervention in politics since 2008 has rather revolved around support for the democratic system, ensured that the governments complete their full terms and helped in conduct of free and fair elections. For example, many heard the sound of boots behind the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s 2014 dharna, but ultimately they diminished and the elected government came out on top much stronger.

The current political environment portrays Pakistan as an example of Huntington’s third wave democracy, where the threats to democracy are “likely to come not from generals and revolutionaries…but rather from participants in the democratic process,” thus the threat is not of an ousting but of a gradual erosion of democracy and democratic principles.

Erosion of democracy in Pakistan can be explained basically by the lack of strengthening and promoting democracy in the post-democratisation period. The first-ever smooth power transition in 2013 from the PPP to the PML-N “was a game changer which greatly reduced the chances of an abrupt government change in Pakistan,” according to South Asia expert Marvin Weinbaum. The smooth power transition is an essential constituent in the process of democratisation. However, beyond democratisation, consolidation and strengthening of democracy remains the most essential task to avoid a reversal, or a step back, especially in countries like Pakistan whose checkered political history has seen several abrupt government changes in the past.

Unfortunately the post-2008 era, according to the Jinnah Institute, was “marked by poor governance, persistent adversarial relations between the executive and the judiciary, allegations of corruption and the inability of the political leadership to build consensus to combat terrorism.” Similarly, gradual deterioration of the quality of democracy was also reported by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (Pildat) in its report, The Assessment of the Quality of Democracy in Pakistan, June 2013-December 2014. The report studied 18 months of the PML-N government and concluded that it was “weak performance of the elected Government that dented the credibility of democracy as a system that ensures good governance.” Further, the latest report from Pildat does not depict optimistic picture for democracy either. The quality of democracy in Pakistan in the year of 2016 scored by Pildat is 46% which is 4 per cent below the score it received in 2015.

The current political turmoil in Pakistan once again has generated speculations and a big question mark on the quality of democracy and the effectiveness of the democratic institutions in Pakistan. It was after the miserable failure of all the democratic institutions that the Supreme Court had intervened in the Panama Leaks case. In the overall institutional failure the very first failure came from the parliamentary party PML-N itself. Due to the personality factor of Nawaz Sharif and the lack of intra-party democracy, there was no accountability from within. Equally disappointing was the role of other institutions such as the supreme democratic institution — Parliament — that could not hold its own leader accountable; the inability of the political parties to agree on ToRs; and the performance of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

Instead of working towards celebrating democratic consolidation and effective functioning of key democratic institutions, unfortunately, on its 70th independence anniversary Pakistan is still in the process of defining the roles of institutions as the Senate is in the process of holding intra-institutional dialogue to prevent the collision of state institutions. Yet, on the other hand, the controversial reference against the Supreme Court by the National Assembly speaker, and the defiance of NAB by the Sharif family tell a different story and indicate clearly that there could be a collision of state institutions which may lead to further erosion of the path to sound democracy.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2017.

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Announced by the five-member Supreme Court, the verdict on Friday caps more than a year of high political drama, breathless court proceedings and a piercing investigation into the finances of the Sharif family.

The charges against Mr. Sharif and three of his children — two sons and a daughter — stemmed from disclosures last year in the Panama Papers leak. Those documents revealed that the children owned expensive residential property in London through offshore companies.

The justices, drawing on a constitutional article that allows the courts to disqualify a member of Parliament who is found to be dishonest, said that they were acting because Mr. Sharif had tried to conceal his assets. And they ordered the opening of a criminal investigation into the Sharif family.

Watching the courtroom drama was the country’s powerful military, which has traditionally decided the fate of civilian governments. There had been hushed speculation that the court, in coming to its decision, had the tacit, if not overt, backing of powerful generals.

Now, Imran Khan, the opposition politician who has been spearheading the campaign against Mr. Sharif since he took power in 2013, stands to gain the most politically from the prime minister’s removal. Mr. Khan has doggedly and almost obsessively led the charge against Mr. Sharif and rallied much of the public against him through a mix of street agitation and court petitions.

The Supreme Court had asked the members of the Sharif family to provide a paper trail of the money they used to buy their London apartments. Investigators found that they were “living beyond their means.”

Despite repeated court exhortations, Mr. Sharif’s family and its lawyers failed to provide satisfactory documentation, the justices said. Several of the documents they produced were declared fake or insufficient.

A representative of the governing party said that although Mr. Sharif was stepping down, the party had “strong reservations” about the verdict and was contemplating “all legal and constitutional means” to challenge it.

Mr. Sharif has called the inquiry into his family’s finances a conspiracy and has asserted that in his three terms as prime minister he had not been tarred by a major corruption scandal.

The ruling, while expected, leaves undecided the long-term fate of the man who has been a dominating force in Pakistani politics for the better part of three decades.

“I did not expect Nawaz Sharif to go scot-free,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political analyst who is based in Lahore.

“If he has a long-term vision, he will sit back and guide his political party,” Mr. Rizvi added. “He and his supporters will portray the court verdict as victimization and a grave conspiracy involving international powers.”

Mr. Sharif’s removal from office throws his political succession plans into disarray. His daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, 43, who was being groomed as his political heir, was also implicated in the case.

Political insiders say there are several possible contenders to replace Mr. Sharif as prime minister in the immediate interim. Names being discussed as include Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker of the national assembly; Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the minister of petroleum; Khurram Dastgir Khan, the commerce minister; and Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister.

“Whoever they bring will be a weak prime minister, as Nawaz Sharif would want to have someone who is more or less in line with his thinking,” Mr. Rizvi said.

For a long-term replacement, though, speculation is focusing on Mr. Sharif’s brother Shehbaz, 65, who is the chief minister of Punjab Province and a prominent and divisive political figure in his own right. He would first have to take his brother’s Parliament seat in a spot election.

Political analysts say the verdict hands Mr. Khan an undeniable political and moral victory, because it was his pressure on the court to take up the Panama Papers case and then render a quick verdict that forced some of the action.

“Imran Khan will be strengthened, but it remains to be seen how he capitalizes in Punjab Province, which is critical to winning the general elections,” Mr. Rizvi said. Punjab, the most populous and prosperous of the country’s four provinces, has been a stronghold of Mr. Sharif’s for decades.

Mr. Sharif presided over a period of relative economic stability and was able to complete a few large infrastructure projects while reducing the crippling power outages that have long afflicted Pakistan.

But the stubborn scandal over the London real estate holdings sullied the reputation of his family.

Mr. Sharif’s political party nonetheless hopes that his achievements can bring it another electoral success next year even if Mr. Sharif cannot run for office.

“We will make a comeback,” Khawaja Saad Rafique, a party leader, said Friday afternoon at a news conference flanked by other senior figures. He said Mr. Sharif’s “crime was that he stood for civilian supremacy.”

He urged party workers to remain peaceful and said that the party respects the country’s institutions. “There will be no chaos,’’ he said. “We will move forward with wisdom and not emotion.”

During his most recent tenure, Mr. Sharif had an uneven relationship with the military. His overtures of more openness toward India, Pakistan’s longtime foe, backfired as generals spurned his efforts.

More recently, relations with the military took a darker turn after news reports detailed how civilian officials confronted the military over what they called a failure to act against Islamist groups. Mr. Sharif had to fire his information minister and two top aides to placate the army.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said the Panama Papers ruling was “a real test of our system.”

Some predicted a politically volatile time ahead.

“Until the elections, this will lead to a period of political instability,” Amber Rahim Shamsi, a prominent journalist who hosts a show on Dawn TV, said of the verdict.

“The Sharif political dynasty has somehow managed to survive Pakistan’s rough and bloody politics for over three and a half decades through wheeling and dealing,” Ms. Shamsi said. “It is hard to imagine all the family falling like a pack of cards. Nawaz Sharif has a following and could cash in on political martyrdom to stage a comeback.”

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