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Where are we headed

An appraisal of the outgoing government’s five years reveals lapses that have put question marks on Pakistan’s future as a functional and progressive democracy

Where are we headed

At the end of the third PML-N government the prospects for Pakistan’s transition to stable democratic governance look bleaker than ever before.

The people didn’t have good, democratic governance during the previous PPP-led coalition regime either but it had invited fewer challenges from non-democratic quarters than has the Nawaz-Abbasi government. The main problem faced with the previous PPP government was that through its failure to work within its constitutional authority it cleared the way for the judiciary to intervene in political and administrative affairs. Thus, it suffered the humiliation of getting its prime minister deposed and jailed for contempt. But it did succeed in preventing the strains in civil-military relations from coming to the surface and also managed to avoid a major crisis in the field of external relations, the ‘memogate’ affair notwithstanding.

The PML-N government instead of reducing the extra-democratic challenges, allowed them to increase. That this was not inevitable was in a way proved by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s success in staying as close to the formal attributes of parliamentary government as circumstance permitted.

However, his government’s poor time management or the laidback attitude of the senior members of the government team led to critical matters being decided inordinately late, in fact during the last phase of the regime’s tenure. These matters included the Election Act, a new order for Gilgit-Baltistan, and FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa beside a host of serious issues. Late holding of the census caused delays in the delimitation of constituencies that has given a handle to the forces that want the general election postponed.

The extraordinarily large number of decisions taken by the federal cabinet in its last three meetings, including policy decisions that will bind down the next government, shows how much was needed to be done in time. Nobody can vouch that the decisions announced in the final week of the government’s tenure followed due deliberation and scrutiny by the parties concerned.

Three lapses of the outgoing government have put question marks on Pakistan’s future as a functional and progressive democracy.

Imran Khan’s best achievements, such as the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, have been possible because apart from raising money for them he left matters in the hands of subject experts. This is not the case with the party.

First, the mishandling of the Panama Leaks case not only resulted in Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from government and to a considerable extent from politics, it also exposed the party’s utter contempt for accountability mechanisms (though they are still in a rudimentary form) and revealed arbitrary management of public affairs on an unacceptable scale. Those in power obviously believed that they were never going to be called to account for their actions. They considered themselves above the law. These exposures not only brought a bad name to democratic politics they also facilitated the judiciary’s movement from activism to a sort of judicial populism that could pose problems for the future governments and the judiciary both.

Secondly, the PML-N government made a mess of the external policy. The disagreement with the United States was unnecessarily allowed to degenerate into a costly confrontation. No serious attempt was made to repair the unaffordable breach with India, the policy on Afghanistan was not reviewed, responsibilities were assumed in the Middle East that might prove to be prohibitively costly, and the risks in putting all eggs in China’s basket were ignored, China was expected to deliver what it possibly could not do and to support policies it does not agree with.

General Asad Durrani has aptly described the dilemma faced in the foreign policy domain: India is too big, Afghanistan is too hot, Iran is too experienced and sometimes too independent, and the United States still meddles in the region’s affairs. It was perhaps wrong to take foreign policy out of the hands of subject specialists. Further, the harm done by the policy of preferring secrecy to transparency has not been assessed. For instance, the affair of the book co-authored by General Asad Durrani with a former Raw chief.

Nobody should say anything about the army’s proceedings against the former ISI chief except for hoping that he will be judged fairly and justly. But the need to derive proper lessons from his disclosures, however indiscreet they may appear to be, cannot be summarily dismissed. The nation needs to ponder the view that Kashmir should come at the end of confidence-building measures and not at the start of the process. Or how will Benazir Bhutto and Aitzaz Ahsan be compensated for being made victims of calumny for something said to have been done by Gen. Hamid Gul.

Thirdly, the PML-N government failed to remove the imbalances in civil-military relations and instead ceded more ground to the military. As a result, what is described as de facto authority has not only acquired more power than the de jure government, it has also begun to be seen at home and abroad as the more effective part of the de jure set-up. This situation poses a threat not only to the government but also to the military’s status and interests and will need urgent corrective efforts from the next government.

Now, on the eve of a general election Pakistan finds itself in an unenviable situation. Circumstances have reduced the competition for power to manage the federation of Pakistan into an intra-Punjab tussle between PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI). Attempts to shatter PML-N into bits are likely to continue till after the polling but the party is displaying a level of resilience that has surprised its friends and foes alike. A sympathy wave in Nawaz Sharif’s favour, already visible to the naked eye, could become stronger if and when the former prime minister is sent to prison. All those who have made an investment in eliminating the PML-N, the Sharifs in particular, from politics, are unlikely to watch events as disinterested spectators. The danger of further friction in politics cannot be ruled out.

The rival party in this all-Punjab contest, the PTI, has steadily been moving from strength to strength and Imran Khan has emerged as a most consistent and indefatigable head of a demolition squad. He has done little to inspire confidence in his ability to play a constructive role and to resolve the multiple crises of the state. His habit of rushing into marriages of convenience and dissolving them with equal haste will not go in his favour. The way PTI has behaved by rejecting its own nominee for the office of Punjab’s caretaker chief minister will raise questions about its claim to be an independent and mature political outfit.

Imran Khan’s best achievements, such as the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, have been possible because apart from raising money for them he left matters in the hands of subject experts. This is not the case with the party. If PML-N created problems for itself by leaving matters in the hands of a coterie of non-political careerists, Imran Khan’s reported style of disregarding senior colleagues’ advice might cause the party loss of democratic elements’ support. That would be a pity for in a less controlled environment Imran Khan could have done good by Pakistan’s politics.

If the Punjab electorate is more or less evenly divided between PML-N and PTI, a hung parliament should mean a weak government lacking in capacity to take difficult and possibly unpopular decisions that the country urgently needs. The clout of less populous provinces, especially of their handlers, could increase. In the final analysis whoever wins, democracy could lose.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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