The passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, in mid-April, has been hailed as a major milestone on the country’s journey towards greater democratisation. It has come about as Pakistan passes through a very delicate – and bumpy – transition from military to civilian governance. Admittedly, there have been numerous such transitions in the country’s past, but these have always been scuttled before they could reach any advanced stage. Nonetheless, today there is cautious optimism on display. One reason for this is a growing realisation that, this time around, political leaders are specifically trying not to repeat the mistakes of the acrimonious past.
It was the vendetta-based politics of the 1990s that led to the military playing the role of umpire between the political parties. In the latest instance, the military threw out the whole lot in 1999, plunging Pakistan once again into another era of ‘controlled democracy’. Today, a chastened political class is far more mindful of what is at stake if its performance (or lack thereof) once again begins to erode public confidence. As such, the politicians are at least making the right sounds, though their actions and petty politicking leave much to be desired. Two years have passed since the democratically elected government was sworn in, a period that has seen some ups and many downs. It may still be too early to assess the success or failure of this latest transition, but some trends have emerged from within the hazy political backdrop.
Pakistan was born as a federation, with the four provinces broadly defined in ethnic and linguistic terms. However, the Centre – exemplified by the civil and military bureaucracy – had a dominating role, though one opposed by the provinces, which continued pushing for greater devolution of power. At one time or the other, the sub-national forces in the smaller provinces of Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP (now renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah) nurtured rebellious tendencies, and often even movements. The separation of East Pakistan in 1971 was a bitter manifestation of these forces at work. Calls for greater provincial autonomy are as old as Pakistan itself, and indeed have become louder in recent years. All this time, however, such calls have fallen on near-deaf ears; the iron grip of the Centre has not eased.
This ‘control freak’ nature of the Pakistani state is rooted in numerous insecurities of the past. The existential threat from India – real or perceived – has weighed heavily on the state, although it does so to a lesser extent now. Fears of India fanning separatism in Sindh and Balochistan, and Afghanistan’s continuing disagreement over recognition of the Durand Line, have also dominated the state’s thinking. Such fears solidified the perception that if the provinces were given more powers, they might break away. Some might see scant reason for such anxieties, but the break-up of 1971 left many with no need for any substantiation. Somehow, the fact that it was the state’s refusal to devolve powers that constituted a major cause of the debacle did little to change this mentality. The civilian bureaucracy, military establishment and ruling Punjabi elite have traditionally been the flag-bearers of a strong Centre. This is not surprising, given that all three have controlled the Centre and dominated all major policymaking; yet Pakistan has paid heavily for this ‘father-knows-best’ attitude.
Time to move
The 18th Amendment is an effort to change these follies. Some key areas of governance that have been transferred to the provinces include criminal law, marriage and divorce issues, will and succession, bankruptcy and insolvency, contracts, trusts, transfer of property, drugs and medicines, environmental issues, population planning, labour issues and trade unions, electricity, printing presses, educational curricula and tourism. In addition, provinces will now have fifty percent ownership of oil, gas and other minerals being exploited, which would mean substantial increase in revenue-generation.
In its intent, at least, the parts of the amendment dealing with greater provincial autonomy are an attempt by the politicians to re-mould the policies of the ‘deep state’ – that small coterie that is said to actually be in control of the central government – and thereby to foster a greater level of national ownership among the population. The logic is that encouraging, and not suppressing, provincial identities will strengthen the ownership factor for Pakistan among its ethnically and linguistically diverse population. Again, that is the intent. But intent alone is never enough. Now that the political parties have unanimously agreed to transfer these powers, the question is whether they can actually make it happen. If the population of Pakistan, divided as it is on multiple lines, cannot see a visible change for the better in their lives, all the pious words inserted into the Constitution regarding provincial rights will amount to nothing.
The provinces now have to shoulder greater responsibilities for their own affairs, but structurally they might be ill-equipped to deal with the extra workload. Whether the issues are of health, education, policing or taxation, the real test for the provincial governments will lie in implementing and executing reforms. Granted, the Centre continues to hold many powers including defence, foreign affairs, nationality and citizenship issues, currency, nuclear energy, ports, national highways, taxes on corporations, railways, etc. But for the first time, the longstanding demands of the provinces, including royalty and ownership of natural resources, have been significantly addressed. In the past, blaming the Centre for all such ills was easy, and politically convenient. Of course, there was an element of truth in these accusations, because the Centre kept the provinces on a tight leash. Hereafter, however, the provinces will no longer have that luxury.
To some extent, the politicians can rightly blame the military governments of the past for these ills. But today, Pakistan has all the trappings of democracy. A fully empowered Parliament and provincial governments with greater autonomy over key areas are in place as a result of fairly legitimate elections, which are accepted by almost all the political stakeholders. The Constitution has been cleansed of nearly all articles that had been inserted by military rulers and were bones of constant contention. A true parliamentary system is in place after the stripping of key powers from the president. Now the politicians have to deliver.
For the moment, the achievement with the biggest impact on Centre-provinces relations is the agreement on the National Finance Commission (NFC) award, which essentially spells out which federating unit will get what percentage of the revenue generated nationally. The NFC has historically been a cause of friction between the provinces themselves, and also between them as a whole and the Centre. The last NFC award was agreed upon in 1997, but thereafter the agreement remained elusive. Last year negotiations started again, with Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin as the main coordinator, and following numerous rounds of intense give and take an agreement was signed by all provinces and the Centre. The NFC award 2010 is a milestone in the chequered history of Centre-province relations, and a clear indicator that mature politics can solve the most intractable of problems.
So far, though, such mature politics are nowhere to be seen. The most serious of the current avoidable crises is the ongoing confrontation with the judiciary. For the last two years, the government has been locking horns with the newly independent and assertive judges, thereby rocking the delicately placed boat. The present chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and many of the rest of the Supreme Court judges, refused to take a new oath under General Pervez Musharraf, who had then ousted them and put them under house arrest in 2007, instigating a nationwide lawyers’ movement to demand their restoration. The movement gained traction, eventually forcing Musharraf to resign, and the judges were restored in March 2009. Since then, buoyed by public support, the judges have become increasingly assertive and fiercely independent – something that no Pakistani government has ever found acceptable.
The latest in this series of confrontations is the virtual refusal of the government to implement the Supreme Court decision of late March, under which it is required to write letters to the Swiss authorities to re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The result is that every subsequent hearing of the court leads to new speculations about the government’s – and the system’s – eventual fate. The gnawing danger is that the judges could ask the armed forces to ensure the implementation of their judgement. This dispute is posing a serious threat to the stability of the system, and distracting attention from key governance issues, including the implementation of the 18th Amendment and the devolution of powers. The government has formed a committee to coordinate this implementation of the amendment, but with few substantive results.
This underscores another hard reality in Pakistan at the moment. For all practical purposes, the government has handed over policymaking in the key areas of defence and foreign policy to the military. The country’s three critical relationships – with the US, India and Afghanistan – are being handled by the military high command, with the civilian government merely rubber-stamping its decisions. It is true that the military has always had a vice-like grip on these issues, but this does not disguise the fact that the government has done little to try and wrest back control – or at least take the initiative, and prove that it has command over policymaking. One such example is the fact that, prior to a key meeting with the US leadership to kick-start a strategic dialogue in late March this year, Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani presided over a meeting of top bureaucrats. The meeting was held not at the Foreign or Defence Ministry, but rather at the army headquarters. Such realities naturally give rise to a basic question: We can celebrate our return to democracy, but what do we do when the democrats are incompetent?
These democrats now have to prove to the Pakistani electorate that they are not incompetent. They have to sort out their issues with the judiciary, and assert themselves in the area of defence and foreign policy. But perhaps most importantly, they have to show that they can translate their good intentions in passing the 18th Amendment into actual transfer of power. This will entail a lot of detailed work, including establishing departments and ministries, and staffing them with trained people. The 18th Amendment says this transfer of power should be completed within two years, but given the traditional pace at which governments work, it will be a huge challenge to meet this deadline. The key determinants will be political will and administrative efficiency.
Then this devolution has to start benefitting the people in whose name all such politics are carried out. In Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, and in all the smaller towns and villages, people will be watching and waiting. There may be cautious optimism about the transition to democracy; but if Pakistanis do not get the dividends they have been promised, their patience with incompetent democrats will undoubtedly wear thin.
~ Fahd Husain is director of news for the Express News (Urdu) and Express 24/7 (English) in Lahore.