Being an elected leader is the toughest career in Pakistan. It is a nasty, brutish, short-lived and often fatal job.
In its 70-year history, Pakistan has been ruled by both civilian democrats and military dictators. Despite the traditional military stranglehold on politics, the country’s legacy is defined by its tenacious and insistent democratic aspirations and credentials.
That’s the procedural context — there have been four military dictators who have ruled for an accumulative 33 years, averaging over eight years per general. The country has had a total of 25 prime ministers and has just elected its 13th chief executive. The rest were either special appointees or caretaker premiers.
Over a period of 37 years, the 25 prime ministers average less than a paltry 18 months in office each — hardly a period conducive to proper governance and political impact. The 13 prime ministers elected by the National Assembly have been in office accumulatively for a period of 20 years, averaging about 19 months each.
Each prime minister elected in the national elections was supposed to be in office for five years (60 months or 1,825 days). Only once did the National Assembly complete its five-year tenure but not a single elected leader completed their five-year tenures.
The elected prime ministers were removed from office four times by generals (two times through a coup), twice by judges and thrice by presidents.
In single tenure, Yousaf Raza Gilani served the longest in office — 1,539 days (51 months). Before being disqualified by the Supreme Court last week, Nawaz Sharif was the second longest single-term prime minister. He was in office for 1,456 days (48 months). Zulfikar Ali Bhutto served for third-longest — 1,412 days (47 months).
Pakistan is still looking for a prime minister who can last 60 months. Even if guaranteed now, that milestone is still six years away.
Clearly, the term in office of a popularly elected prime minister in Pakistan is defined by how long she or he can survive and what he is able to achieve in the short term while he survives. In that sense the bigger picture shows even though Nawaz Sharif has the dubious distinction of being kicked out of office thrice (once each by a president, a general and judges) and himself resigning once, and not completing his tenure even once, the fact is that he served Pakistan as an elected leader for the longest accumulative period — a total of 3,360 days.
Nawaz is the closest that comes to a political survivor in Pakistan even though it may not quite seem that way right now.
In the Pakistan of the new millennium, despite Musharraf’s eight khaki years, the political legacies of Nawaz and Benazir loom large. They have helped improve the odds for Pakistan’s elected leaders, and strengthened the parliament in relative terms as compared with the pre-millennium period.
While both Nawaz and Benazir spent the first seven years of the millennium in political exile, they cobbled up the seminal Charter of Democracy (CoD) that has helped change the political game vis-à-vis the military-bureaucracy-judicial establishment which has traditionally conspired and colluded against representational, pluralistic, inclusive and parliamentary democracy in the country.
Even though Benazir was assassinated for her troubles, her legacy forever will be broadening and strengthening the political space for implementation of the new political compact that was the CoD, as an antidote to the oft-abused constitution by the military rulers and their lackeys.
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It was this that helped, aided by Nawaz as her party’s partner even after her tragic death, strengthen parliament by drastically amending the Constitution, devolving most federal powers to the provinces through decentralisation, reforming and scaling up financial resources for the federating units and respecting the popular mandate of all political parties.
Nawaz shares an equal credit for all this with Benazir. The CoD, Benazir’s greatest legacy, could not have been possible if Nawaz did not, mostly, keep his word during the tenure of her Pakistan People’s Party and also his own tenure that abruptly ended last week. Except for losing his focus in the last year of the Gilani government, when he helped the Establishment aid the Supreme Court in forcing out yet another prime minister, Nawaz has otherwise helped strengthen the implementation of the CoD. He kept it alive as a legacy that he shares with Benazir. It is not a small feat and he has now paid a steep price for this yet again.
When his Pakistan Muslim League-N won the popular mandate for the Centre and Punjab in the 2013 elections, Nawaz emerged as a changed prime minister from his previous terms. Whereas he was mostly impulsive and vindictive in his earlier two terms, this time round Nawaz pointedly came across as mostly inclusive and tolerant, and has respected the mandates of his political foes in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
He has desisted from the destabilisation tactics of yore — thereby allowing his political foes to flourish and trouble him at the Centre over the ensuing years.
This was the first time a prime minister at the Centre did not resort to petty politicking to undermine the governments of opposition in the provinces. This was in contrast to even the otherwise pluralistic PPP that could not help itself attempt to destabilise the Sharif party’s government in Punjab in 2008-09 through Salmaan Taseer.
This credit for tolerating — even promoting — political pluralisms in the provinces must go to Nawaz, even though Imran Khan will never thank him for not simply taking over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when he could have.
In that sense he delivered on one of the biggest promises of the CoD.
But this is not enough, as far as legacies go. For someone whose party got three-fifths more time than Benazir’s did, Nawaz failed to deliver even half of the promise that the PPP had the opportunity for. While working on the megawatts (energy) and motorways (communications) is fine, with the loads of extra time and political capital that he had, Nawaz lost a golden opportunity to move from merely protecting the CoD to strengthening and formalising it.
This could have been done by deepening political reforms by (i) ushering in a secondary round of devolution from the provinces to the districts, including guaranteed fiscal resource allocations, (ii) an earlier census that would have informed and influenced radical electoral reforms, including qualification and disqualification criteria, (iii) protecting tenures of legislatures and chief executives through legal immunity from prosecution while prime ministers and chief ministers remained in office, (iv) bringing in laws that would make seniority the single criterion for appointment of armed forces chiefs (similar to judges of the Supreme Court and high courts) to end constitutional adventurism and political opportunism and manipulation, (v) bowing to popular demand and enacting Fata and Pata reforms by making the regions part of KP, (vi) giving de facto provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir (pending their final political status) so as to offer them representation in parliament.
He may be out of office but Nawaz is still the luckiest among prime ministers when it comes to opportunities. His party is still in power and his nominee prime minister. And the largest opposition party, the PPP, still his partner in political reforms through the CoD. He still has 10 months to bring in these reforms through constitutional amendments if he reaches out to the PPP. He can either squander away this opportunity or bring Pakistan some of the greatest gifts the country deserves and, in the process, become politically immortal and secure a lasting legacy of reforms.