The endless road to democracy

Pakistan's decades-long, on-again, off-again relationship with democracy has been marred by both internal and external factors. Over the past three decades, Pakistan has held six general and a similar number of local body elections. It is difficult to complain about the number of elections, though the duration between these polls has varied widely. Whenever the people of Pakistan have been allowed to exercise their franchise, the levels of participation in the political process, even at the village level, have been fairly good. In the last three decades, while people have voted for their representatives and governments, they just have not been given a chance to vote out their representatives and governments. Either the military has stepped in or presidents have dissolved assemblies owing to disagreements with prime ministers.

Civilian presidents dissolved assemblies and dismissed the governments of Benazir Bhutto twice and of Nawaz Sharif once. But while these prime ministers were not allowed to complete their terms, presidential action did not disrupt the democratic process, as new assemblies were constituted throughout the 1988-1999 period through elections. However, the dismissal of the governments of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (5 July 1977) and Nawaz Sharif (12 October 1999) came at the hands of generals who introduced their own visions of civil-military democracy. If General Zia-ul Haq brought in a conservative agenda, General Pervez Musharraf took over with a comparatively liberal one. But both introduced democracies of their choice and defined governance on their own terms. And both fabricated would-be ruling parties overnight to advance their respective agendas.

During his 11-year rule, Zia literally tried to change the basic democratic fabric of Pakistani society through so-called Islamisation, which US policymakers condoned and sanctioned so that they could leverage religious sentiment against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This is the era that brought to Pakistan the culture of the Taliban, Kalashnikovs, drugs and other extremist trends linked to the US-Osama bin Laden jihad against Soviet troops. The Zia era successfully fragmented Pakistani society along ethnic, caste, creed and religious lines, and witnessed the creation of a separate electorate system to justify the general's grip on power through elected local bodies. Then came the highly controversial Hudood laws, which, in the name of Islamisation, undermined the position of women and contributed to the marginalisation of minority communities and citizens in general, making them more vulnerable to social and state violence while concomitantly depriving them of their fundamental rights and democratic traditions.

The military dictatorship of General Zia is solely responsible for Pakistan's spiralling crises, which combined have blocked progress towards democracy and stymied the pursuit of tolerance, peace, social justice, economic growth and institution building. Moreover, it was Zia's rule that created militant jihadis, the so-called warrior element, among the otherwise peaceful and democracy-loving people of Pakistan.

Mushy order
In contrast to his predecessors, Musharraf has been hesitant to drape his government in the garb of martial law. He is on record as saying that he is not an incarnation of either Field Marshal Ayub Khan or Zia, but is a different breed. Indeed, Musharraf claims to be a Pakistani visionary in the mould of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Muhammad Mahathir of Malaysia.

While both Zia and Musharraf introduced their own slates of democratic reforms, Musharraf is something of a humane dictator rather than a military one. He has allowed the protection of certain liberties. He has introduced a devolution plan aimed at distributing power to local bodies, thus facilitating transition to democracy at the village level. In contrast to Zia, Musharraf fulfilled his promise of conducting elections within the period mandated by the supreme court, albeit amid public accusations of electoral rigging to ensure the victory of his client party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), at the centre and in the provinces of Balochistan and Punjab. Politics being what it is, Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was relegated to the opposition benches in Sindh despite emerging from the elections as the single largest party. In North Western Frontier Province, a pro-Taliban religious alliance wound up in control.

Nonetheless, before restoring even selective parliamentary politics, Musharraf introduced the Legal Framework Order (LFO), which according to his government's theoreticians, automatically became part of the constitution without parliamentary endorsement. Besides introducing electoral reforms such as lowering the suffrage age from 21 to 18, establishing seat quotas of 33 percent for women and minorities and other similar progressive provisions, the LFO gave sweeping powers to the president over the administrative functions of government. It is because of this imbalanced power formula that Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali is on record as saying that President Musharraf is his boss. Coming from a prime minister, such an admission runs counter to the spirit of Pakistan's constitution, rules of procedure and tenets of democracy. The opposition is pursuing this, querying how a grade-22 officer (chief of army staff) outranks an elected prime minister.

The LFO controversy has marred the newly elected national assembly, which has convened six times in short-lived sessions since its inception after the October 2002 general elections. In the sixth session that ended on 30 April, the national assembly counted 15 working days during which it transacted nominal business in the form of a bill broadening the powers of the government to sack government employees. Out of these 15 working days, the national assembly actually met for only seven, during which the opposition continuously voiced its protests against the LFO and the presence of a uniformed president in the assembly hall. After almost six months, the tug of war between the opposition and the Jamali-led, Musharraf-controlled government has failed to result in the repeal of certain clauses of the LFO that empower the president over the prime minister and the parliament and allow him to simultaneously hold a military rank.

Nevertheless, only recently Prime Minister Jamali showed some flexibility and started talks with the opposition. A day before the talks were set to start, however, Musharraf met senior journalists, telling them that he would not give up his uniform, thus implying that he will continue to hold the reins of power. He categorically stated that he wants to see the reforms introduced by his government continued, implying a continued central political role for himself. Musharraf went so far as to make the interesting argument that his uniformed political service is required, as it allows him to speak for both the military and political leaderships. The opposition did not buy this argument, but the situation ignited a debate on whether democracy can prevail long without the support of the military and if the military's role should be constitutionally enshrined, as the Westminster model may not suit Pakistan.

On the LFO, the opposition-government joint committee has identified seven controversial clauses that need to be sorted out before 15 May so that the parliament is in working order before the start of the seventh session. In the opposition's formulation, the most important of these issues is the constitutional status of the LFO, which it says cannot be unilaterally added to the constitution by the government. The second concerns the holding of dual military and civilian leadership posts, and the third calls for the National Security Council to be dismantled. The fourth objection is that presidential power to dissolve parliament under Article 58(2)-B of the constitution is unacceptable in its present form, which is related to the following point, that of all other powers of the president that give him supremacy over parliament. A demand of Pakistan's legal fraternity for a three-year extension of the retirement age of judges is the sixth point, followed by the final, the incorporation of several important laws under the sixth schedule of the constitution, laws under which may only be repealed or amended with the prior consent of the president. The committee is scheduled to negotiate on these points during a series of meetings between 5 and 15 May.

It is useful to consider these seven points in the context of Musharraf's candid discussion with senior journalists, where he articulated his defence of the LFO. The question also arises as to how the committee can resolve this conflict when Musharraf has declared himself indispensable on all political fronts, including the economic and diplomatic. Given such a situation, and despite the scheduling of formal talks, it cannot be ruled out that the opposition will soften its stance, in particular in light of a possible improvement in India-Pakistan relations, which might entail diplomatic and commercial re-engagement. If this were to happen it would have far-reaching effects on the domestic politics of both India and Pakistan.

It is likely that the LFO committee will accept some expanded presidential powers, such as those under Article 58(2)-B and presidential discretion in the sacking of prime ministers. Similarly, the government for the time being could scrap the controversial National Security Council and give up ground on the extension of judges' retirement ages. On the issue of Musharraf holding two offices simultaneously, a compromise could be arrived at by giving a date for him to step down from his military position if he agrees to stand for re-election as a president in sherwani instead of in uniform.

If the government amicably resolves the LFO controversy, it could then focus its attention on political stability to reap the fruits of economic growth and a favourable diplomatic climate. But for the LFO impasse and political upheavals, Prime Minister Jamali's government has inherited a fairly comfortable economic situation and the rewards of a calculated foreign policy of putting Pakistan at the centre of international attention.

On the domestic front, the economy is predicted to grow 4.5 percent in fiscal year 2003 and by as much as five percent in 2004 owing to stable macroeconomic conditions, a narrowed fiscal deficit of 5.1 percent, a 15 percent increase in revenues and stabilisation of the inflation rate at 3.5 percent. According to a recent Asian Development Bank report, Pakistan's balance of payments has improved significantly due to a sharp increase in foreign remittances and larger inflows of foreign loans and grants. The balance of payments currently shows a large surplus of USD 2.7 billion in the current account. External debt and liabilities have also declined, with Pakistan retiring expensive short-term loans/debt from USD 37.1 billion to USD 36.5 billion. GDP growth stood at 3.6 percent in fiscal 2002, up from 2.5 percent in 2001. There are indications that due to these improvements, GDP growth may exceed the 2003 target rate of 4.5 percent. Additionally, heavy rains in late winter have improved the prospects of agriculture, which is the backbone of Pakistan's economy. But while these positive economic trends suggest an improved future for Pakistan, rising poverty has had massive counter-effects, weakening social sector services, among other impacts. Just as importantly, employment opportunities and livelihood options for many people, particularly the marginalised, are not improving.

Pakistan's economic growth outlook is clouded when there is political instability, tension at the borders and global economic uncertainty. Though there are some signs of flexibility on the domestic, regional and international fronts, Pakistan has to move in a skilful manner. While politics falls beyond the military's mandate, the generals nonetheless have concrete political power stemming from their control over administrative, intelligence and economic networks, making them difficult to ignore. Politicians should consider devising a model of democracy tailored to Pakistan instead of expecting the Westminster system to suddenly work.

Likewise, the military leadership should recognise that when generals topple elected civilian governments, sometimes in concert with US strategic calculations, displaced civilian leaders pull on the military's power. In this game, which has been repeated several times, the military manufactures mandates for a newly created group of pro-establishment leaders who lack support on the ground. Those who join these military-crafted governments to legitimise the rule of generals receive a clean chit, often in spite of implication in criminality, while opposition figures are branded corrupt and often driven into exile or imprisoned. Political stability cannot be ensured unless real political parties and their leaders, in accordance with popular support from the people of Pakistan, are allowed to function freely, and the political and military leaderships respect one another's positions.

On the border conflict, the recent peace initiative from Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the matching response from Islamabad come as good omens. The Americans, having completed their task in Iraq, now appear interested in helping to resolve other regional conflicts such as the tension between India and Pakistan. In the US-dominated global order, it appears that there is no purpose to such tension, and hopefully stability in India-Pakistan relations will soon emerge.

The third stability factor, the reversal of international uncertainties, has improved with Islamabad's adroit handling of the Iraq crisis. It neither sided openly with the US nor with Saddam Hussein. However, Pakistan has been supportive of the Iraqi people, and it is garnering economic support and enhanced status as an ally in the war against terrorism and as a country that repudiates state-sponsored terrorism.

Of the three stability factors, the latter two appear to be improving, though the country's domestic political situation still requires progress. This depends purely on the attitudes and understanding of the two forces in the country, the political and military leaderships.

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