Pakistan’s predictably wobbly but surprisingly persistent mission of constitutional and procedural democracy continues. Never easy in its missionary trajectory since the country broke up in 1971 for lack of it, democracy in its latest evolutionary stage finds itself at a vulnerable, even if familiar, juncture — close to an election but mired in growing self-doubt about its sustainability and futility, and rumours about whether polls will be held at all.
This, in itself, given the country’s peculiar historical context, is not surprising.
In its 70 years of existence, Pakistan has experienced a life-affirming smooth transfer of power between two democratic dispensations only once, in 2013, whereas the country has in total held 10 elections based on adult franchise (each adult citizen per vote). Of these, apart from the first one in 1970, only twice has the National Assembly completed its full tenure, in 2007 and 2013. Even of these two, the 2002-2007 parliament was a puppet enterprise under the control of a ruling military dictator.
The rest of the eight times, the election results were disdainfully rubbished by forcefully dissolving parliament (often with military-judiciary backing) after an average of 23 months rather than the constitutionally-mandated 60-month tenure each. The 1977 and 1997 elections ended in martial law, resulting in the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and exiling of Nawaz Sharif. At least two elections —1985 and 2002 — were not really democracy for being held under the military in full power (Generals Zia and Musharraf), producing puppet prime ministers (Messrs Muhammad Khan Junejo, Zafarullah Jamali and Shaukat Aziz).
Not an envious democratic record, then.
A historical lack of confidence in procedural democracy with election as the key benchmark in this process is back to haunt Pakistan again now. The signs are ominous. A prime minister is yet again under threat of being removed through a process other than through which PMs are elected — voted by a simple majority of National Assembly. No prime minister other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has completed a full term in office or was elected for two consecutive terms. And he had to pay the ultimate price for this distinction.
Also, civil-military tensions are now at some of their most troubled in three decades with old grudges (the military having to salute someone they ousted and exiled to end his political career but failed, and a prime minister who has to work with the same forces as his theoretical subordinate institutions who ousted, jailed, judged, hand-cuffed him on a plane and banished him).
Tensions between a government and the apex court are also highest in a decade — a party who has attacked the court before and is badmouthing it again in the media like never before and a prime minister who is incensed at an appellate forum conducting his trial through a proxy of bureaucrats and spies, once again just as he is on the cusp of his political career.
Other variables are also in play, contributing to doomsday-mongering these days about the democratic process on a real-time media that has grown to evolve into a destabilising force unto its own. One is a change in guard in the realm of populist opposition politics. The larger-than-life Imran Khan and his bombastic Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf have stolen both the thunder and the role of Pakistan People’s Party as the principal opposition. This is worrisome, considering that the PPP has a tradition of sacrificing self-interest for the political system while the PTI is more inclined in favour of a zero-sum outcome for short-term advantages.
The PPP act is now restricted to merely being a proceduralist opposition — the largest opposition party in the National Assembly but only by a wafer thin margin over the PTI which compensates for this deficit by dominating the streets and the airwaves. Imran Khan and company are driving the opposition agenda while the PPP is not even sure if Asif Zardari is in charge or Bilawal Bhutto. Or maybe Khurshid Shah? Who knows?
‘Naya’ or ‘purana’ Pakistan?
Another destabilising variable is the great inability of key national and principal provincial political parties to decide about a leadership transition for a literally ‘Naya Political Pakistan’. Voters in Pakistan have nearly doubled in number from the time of the 1988 elections. A majority of these new voters have no ideological or emotional connection with the Sharif family of Punjab, Bhutto family of Sindh or the Khan family of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Even the more restricted religious-minded sectarian voters rooting for smaller, limited-utility parties like Sirajul Haq’s Jamaat-e-Islami or Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam are losing their appeal to the PTI.
Imran Khan has enough populist Islamic characteristics to endear himself to those seeking another party in office on the wings of a prayer. The PTI is an exception in the leadership issue since it has never had a multi-generational leadership stake in heading a political party. But fatigue with the same faces and families and the moribund, decrepit nature of governance and management of political parties like the PPP, PML-N, MQM and ANP is part of the lost romance with issue-based, ideology-based politics in Pakistan.
Having said that, the ‘Big Constant’ of Pakistani politics is the procedural side of democracy. All the naysaying and propaganda against politics and politicians has failed to dent the lure of an inclusive and representational democracy as the common answer to people’s frustrations. The people find political parties a convenient vehicle to represent their key political aspirations. The virtually linear upward trajectory of voting public in elections is another ‘Big Plus’.
This is buttressed by the institution of electoral politics which strengthens parliamentary democracy (as opposed to presidential politics preferred by the men in khaki) through representation of all four provinces and their districts in parliament who all have a say in key decisions.
The confidence in procedural democracy is underpinned by the fact that there is fierce and fair competition for support of the electorates. This, of course, means that support of political parties must first be translated into votes, then number of votes must be translated into electoral victories, and then electoral victories converted into parliamentary seats and then parliamentary seats converted into a simple majority in parliament. This simple majority of 172 seats in National Assembly secures you a prime minister and a government.
This is where ‘Old Hands’ prevail — the parliamentary numerical behemoths PML-N and PPP.
Both have secured a simple majority on their own or with the help of allies a total of eight times — five for the PPP and three for the PML-N — out of the ten elections held. These two parties understand electoral politics better than the PTI or anyone else who has ever dreamed of toppling the ‘Big Two’ of Pakistani politics. The PTI certainly got the second highest number of votes in 2013 elections but still failed to become the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.
Win-win give and take
So, how can the upcoming election not just be held, but held in time and held fairly and transparently enough to keep the national procedural democracy project on track?
Two things are key. The first is to differentiate between the parliament and government. A change in government ahead of time is legal even if the PML-N currently balks at the idea. Changing the prime minister, in the worst-case scenario if Nawaz Sharif is technically disqualified under the Panama probe, will still keep the system stable. There is already a precedent: in 2013 when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was technically disqualified, even if unfairly, he was summarily replaced by another party member as premier.
This resulted in keeping the government stable and the parliament completing its tenure for the first time in 45 years. If Sharif gets disqualified, all that the PML-N has to do to stick to procedural democracy is to replace him with another prime minister — preferably someone not from the Sharif family — for the remainder of the term.
This will remove the biggest grouse of the opposition. Saving the system will bring dividends to Sharif and his party within months.
The second is for the PML-N to play it smart by tabling the massive electoral reforms bill that has been in the works for three years in parliament and make it law as soon as possible. The PPP is sure to support it, which will be enough to make it part of the constitution. This will finally give the PML-N one thing it has always lacked in its three stints in power but which the PPP always pulls off — a solid political and constitutional reforms legacy.
This will benefit the PML-N hugely politically as well as the PPP, and in the bargain the PTI’s bluff will also be called.
The third big ticket victory for Pakistan’s procedural democracy would be, even though difficult to swallow for the PML-N for now but which will bring it major political dividends, for the ruling party to announce upfront its acceptance of a candidate of caretaker prime minister jointly nominated by all parties in the National Assembly other than the PML-N, provided election is fixed on dates that more or less allow for a complete tenure for the current parliament. This will allow for the PML-N to consolidate itself in the Senate in March 2018.
This win-win for all political stakeholders in terms of payoffs will be huge — (i) the second peaceful transfer of power on the terms of Pakistan’s political forces, (ii) uncontested legitimacy for the caretaker government, and (iii) possibly the fairest and most transparent elections ever based on the electoral reforms package. Net result: consolidation of procedural democracy translating into reformation of popular politics as a means of empowering inclusive, representational and parliamentary democracy needed to peacefully and firmly negotiate the need for good governance as the principal agenda of the next parliament.