Pakistan’s democracy took another great leap forward on July 25 when the country witnessed its fourth consecutive general elections in a span of 16 years. During this period, despite all the prophecies of doom and gloom about the survival of Pakistan’s nascent democratic system, three elected parliaments and governments have completed their terms.
Yes, at the Prime Minister House there were premature change of guards because of political or legal compulsions, but all the three ruling political parties and assemblies of their time successfully crossed the five-year mark – a no mean feat by Pakistani standards.
Notwithstanding all the real or often imaginary stories of tussle, friction and distrust within various arms of the government, Pakistan’s democratic experience continues uninterrupted since 2002 and with each passing day, it is getting entrenched and mature.
The contribution of around 370,000 army personnel and more than 450,000 police officials on the election day made it possible for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold the polling in a peaceful manner.
All our institutions, including the Pakistan Armed Forces and the judiciary, have played their constitutional role in safeguarding and advancing Pakistan’s democratic experience. The 2018 elections held in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner – barring few tragic incidents of terrorism during the election campaign and on the polling day – itself is a testimony of how various arms of the state are delivering despite being pitted against all odds in a volatile region. The contribution of around 370,000 army personnel and more than 450,000 police officials on the election day made it possible for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold the polling in a peaceful manner.
The holding of the electoral exercise despite terror threats is not the only achievement of Pakistan’s democracy this time around.
The resilience and empowerment of the elected and state institutions can be gauged from the fact that for the first time in our history, a prime minister was accused, tried and dismissed for corruption while in office in July 2017, but the system functioned normally. The ruling party elected a new leader of the house and the process of accountability and democracy went on hand-in-hand without any disruption.
These developments offer hope that the system will strengthen further through gradual reforms, removing its inherent flaws and weaknesses that often give room to individuals to trample law and institutions as well as resort to anti-people measures.
Another positive for Pakistan’s democracy remains its vibrant, lively and often sensational media – both traditional and social – that remains free to comment, examine and raise questions on almost every issue and topic under the sun. Now there is no political, social or economic subject which is a taboo or any institution considered as sacred. This freedom of expression is also a sign of consolidation of democracy and democratic culture, reflected through the diversity of Pakistan’s media scene.
However, despite these positives, Pakistan and its political order face multiple mega-challenges, including how to improve governance, ensure justice, root-out corruption, bring political stability, revive the economy and make this democracy pro-people. Among all these challenges, achieving political stability is a prerequisite if a government aims to deliver on all the other fronts.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has been in the grip of prolonged instability and uncertainty because of bitter confrontation among political rivals. This has hurt Pakistan on almost every front – from managing the economy to its foreign relations – as the governments of the day focused on survival rather than delivering fruits of democracy to the people, and reforming and strengthening the state and its institutions.
Therefore, the foremost task for the newly-elected government and the Parliament remains bringing stability to the country and ending the politics of confrontation. This requires foresight and sagacity not just from members sitting on the treasury benches, but also from the opposition. Political reconciliation will be the first step towards putting Pakistan back on track.
The consensus among major opposition parties to sit in the assemblies despite their reservations about the conduct of general elections is indeed a good omen. The new government and the ECP must now take steps to address the genuine concerns of the opposition and remove misgivings about the electoral process and address its weaknesses and flaws, if any, for the future. The allegations of mismanagement and rigging should also be investigated and addressed in line with the existing rules and procedures. The ECP has already asked political players to file official complaints rather than creating doubts about the entire electoral exercise by leveling unsubstantiated allegations for media consumption.
Going forward, major political parties – both in the government and the opposition – need to evolve a broad consensus on major national issues that must include structural reforms to improve governance, fix the economy and meet foreign relations challenges. There should also be consensus about the continuation of the accountability process in a free, fair, transparent and independent manner. For accountability and a system of check-and-balances serve as a cornerstone in any democratic order which aims to deliver to the people. The accountability process needs to be strengthened and made autonomous. It must not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency or opportunism.
The new government must also be mindful of the fact that running a state needs consensus-building and collective decision-making among various stakeholders and institutions.
Unfortunately, in the past some politicians tried to establish individual or dynastic rule in the name of democracy. By doing so, they not only ignored their cabinet and the Parliament, but also tried to undermine institutions. Their decision-making style remained undemocratic as they banked solely on a small coterie, comprising family and friends.
This culture of attempting to run a 21st Century state as a fiefdom stands against the basic principles and values of democracy. No wonder, the past few years were so tumultuous and chaotic. It resulted into an unnecessary tussle within political forces and at times dragged institutions into political fray, which could have been avoided. The dominance of anti-democratic mindset in our major political parties and at the highest echelons of power stunted and distorted Pakistan’s democratic system.
Modern states, especially democracies, work within the constitutional framework with proper checks and balances. However, in Pakistan often party leaders try to act like mini-dictators, who want to remain unaccountable, unanswerable to their followers, the Parliament or any other institution. To prevent this, the new government has to play according to the book and strengthen systems and institutions rather than individuals. Luckily, this has been the position and one of the major election campaign points of the new ruling party. Now it is time to walk the talk.
Experience shows that when an elected government fails to perform and loses credibility because of corruption and misrule, the vacuum is filled by other institutions determined to prevent chaos in the country. This has happened many times in Pakistan. To prevent a repeat of this situation, the newly-elected government and the Parliament must up their game in terms of performance.
In the past, even the highest forum like Parliament was used to enact controversial legislation, which benefitted individuals or select interest groups rather than the masses. The new dispensation must focus on delivery and pro-people reforms rather than perpetuating the rule of a family or the vested interests.
In Pakistan, there is a tiny but influential foreign-connected or inspired lobby operating within political parties, the media, academia and the non-government organizations, which always attempts to put the masses against institutions – especially the army and the judiciary.
This lobby, backed by hostile foreign powers, misleadingly describes and interprets civil-military relations as inherently antagonistic and hostile. Their aim is to pit at least a part of civilian leadership against the state institutions. Their near term goal remains to keep Pakistan politically unstable, while their mid-to-long-term objectives are to weaken the world’s lone nuclear Muslim state to an extent where it is forced to compromise on vital national interests. This can only be done by weakening the state institutions and imposing a puppet government, which can dance to the tunes of regional and foreign powers.
This assault on the State of Pakistan – both from within and outside as part of the fifth generation war – can only be prevented if all the arms of the government and state institutions are on one page on fundamental national issues and prepared to push in one direction for optimum results.
All modern states work and achieve their objectives on the back of greater integration and harmony within civil and military institutions, sticking to their constitutionally defined role. While the final call and responsibility rests with the civilian leadership in policy-making, input of all stakeholders remains a must as it happens in advanced democracies.
The new government is starting innings on a clean slate. Its leadership does not carry burden of the past. It has a golden and great opportunity to bring much-needed political stability in Pakistan, introduce structural political and economic reforms and unleash the true potential of this nation which has under-performed because of the crisis of leadership.
The grand dream of transforming Pakistan into a progressive, prosperous and strong country can only be fulfilled through national unity and cohesion. The new government has to lead and show the way. It must succeed for the sake of Pakistan for we cannot afford another failure.
The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media.
E-mail: [email protected],