Giving democracy in Pakistan a chance: Raza Rumi

Guest post by RAZA RUMI

Endless predictions about the fall of the PPP-led coalition government in Pakistan have been made by pundits since the very day it came to power. The recent hullabaloo about this has been in the context of the forthcoming Senate Elections, due in March 2012, which ceteris paribus will ensure a simple majority to the PPP and its allies in the upper house. Given that the Senate is an equaliser in federalist politics, this would mean that legitimate representatives of smaller provinces would be permanent stakeholders in the system beyond this government.

Since General Zia ul Haq’s martial law, Senate elections have been engineered by Pakistan’s civil-military establishment to retain their control over democratic governance.  General Musharraf played a similar game. However, the functions and role of the Upper House have expanded now with the enactment of the 18th amendment to the Constitution, which removed the power of the President to unilaterally dissolve the Parliament. Budget and finance bills cannot be approved without the endorsement of the Senate, and legislative proposals too have to go through the process of Senate ratification. Hence the nagging worries that any post-2013 government would have to deal with this situation.

Pakistan’s democracy may have failed to deliver the goods to people but an imperceptible shift has taken place. A linear view of the establishment versus the politicians is no longer valid. Such an outdated lens to view the shifting contours of Pakistan’s political governance has outlived its utility. No longer is it possible to brazenly ‘manipulate’ the electoral process given the rise of the media and an independent judiciary. Similarly, sustaining a coup detat is even more difficult with dozens of TV channels monitoring and reporting on the performance of any government.

Most importantly, the military is occupied on the borders and faces major pressures from NATO and the US, as well as with the insurgency in Balochistan and parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Its leadership has displayed an aversion to direct rule, given how the Musharraf fiasco ended in 2009 with his unceremonious ouster. It has also entered into a comfortable relationship with the civilians.

The recent backing of almost all the political parties, save the Baloch separatists, to the military’s worldview on Afghanistan and relations with US demonstrates this new relationship. Ayaz Amir in his column published in The News recently made a valid observation with regard to the military strategy on domestic affairs: “he new philosophy: far better to pull the strings from behind rather than step into the mess and be soiled by it. Call it also the new sophistication.”

Few would disagree with Amir’s prognosis: “The vacuum created by the failure of Pakistan’s traditional governing elites – political and military – is being filled by the twin cousins of anarchy and religion-based enthusiasm.” However, it may be too early to write an obituary of democracy and democratic governance. Three reasons come to mind.

First, the electoral system and its flaws are under public and judicial scrutiny. The shameful scandal of 37 million bogus names on the electoral list is now being corrected. The Election Commission has told the Supreme Court that it aims to correct these flaws in  electoral rolls.

Second, most political parties are committed to the full implementation of the provincial autonomy under the 18th Amendment, which is already changing the way national governance works. The failures of provinces are also being highlighted through a strong, though many a time unfair and lopsided, process of media accountability. The recent judgment of the Supreme Court on the Karachi violence case, notwithstanding the jurisdictional debate, holds the provincial government and the ruling coalition to account. Similarly, the dengue epidemic in the Punjab has thrown light on how the largest province is being governed.

Third, the rise of Imran Khan’s popularity after nearly a decade and a half of politicking is also telling. Dismiss him or worship him, his appeal is growing especially amongst the urban youth. His place under the Pakistani sun is healthy for Pakistan. Instead of the youth clamouring for a military General on a proverbial horseback, they are looking towards a civilian, sportsman and a charity-guru who uses high rhetoric and has thus far not shunned constitutional governance. That’s better than the militant outfits and Al-Qaeda stooges who want to undo what is left of Pakistani institutions.


Many columnists viewed recent somersaults of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid e Azam) and the antics of TV anchors as a repeat of political instability of the 1990s. However, they were most disappointed when President Zardari used the ‘bargain and compromise’ principle of an elitist democracy to settle the storm in the media teacups.

Traditional pundits and many ordinary Pakistanis are baffled with this mess, the cacophony of voices and contested claims. But this is essentially democratic and a healthy sign of vibrant freedoms. That Pakistan’s democracy survives amid the rise of Al-Qaeda’s nihilism fuelled by anti-Americanism is its basic strength. Most of Pakistan’s militant groups allied with Al-Qaeda reject the Constitution and democracy. Their worldview has gained traction due to the politics of anti-Americanism: where the mainstream political parties toe the line given by intelligence agencies pitted against CIA, the left considers America as the evil ‘imperial’ power; and religious lobbies and mosque-mullahs cite Palestine as the evident case for hating the United States.

This is why the Pakistani narrative has to change and political parties once again must take the lead. Pakistan’s media steeped in traditional anti-Americanism must also realise this danger. If they will help expand Al-Qaeda’s popular base, sooner than later they will also be its victims for the militant version of ‘Islam’ has no scope for free speech, let alone advertisements with women in them.

We need a position which is contextual, and our very own, and not imported from Al-Zahawari’s fantasy tales of Islamic ascendancy. Instead of rejecting the US, our civil and military elites need to define what is Pakistani ‘interest’ beyond gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan or using ‘jihad’ as a policy instrument. Once we do that, we can arrive at a more reasoned view of our relationship with the world including the US. Hating US hegemony in isolation bears no fruit if we don’t tackle Saudi Arabia’s ideological imperialism and Chinese capture of our markets and businesses. For all this to happen, we need more democracy and more space to articulate positions and create a room for consensus.

Pakistan’s ideological and military contests (on the eastern and western fronts) have taken their toll on civilian governance. A government in power can do little if it does not effectively control un-elected institutions. The military, judiciary and the media are virtually unaccountable and therefore the next stage of Pakistan’s constitutional evolution has to find a more realistic relationship between the elected and non-elected – a liaison that has remained heavily, tilted in the favour of the latter since 1950s.


Having said that, the federal government cannot be absolved of its misdoings and failures. The mismanagement of the power sector and the large public debt management is something they have to answer for. If they cannot do anything about them, then at least they should be transparent and open about how they manage these areas, given their constraints, instead of using rhetoric, which only makes them look gravely incompetent.

With the largest opposition party needing patronage through power to retain its domain – the urban Punjab – against the youth base of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, most regional parties from smaller provinces enjoying fruits of power and the MQM back in power there are little incentives for the political forces to upset the tenuously balanced democratic alignment. Whether this bourgeois democracy is serving the interests of Pakistan’s down-trodden is a separate, complex debate.

In the short term, it seems that Zardari, who is the nemesis of many power-centres in Pakistan, and whose downfall was arguably the worst of predictions, has won this round. There are few signs that the PPP government would fall before the March 2012 Senate elections. If the PPP survives the March battle, who would want to run the government for a year? And if the Bangladeshi model of technocratic care-taking were chosen to avert the PPP’s likely victory in the Senate election then how would the Constitution be ‘fixed’?

The judges who fought a military junta to find their way back to the bench would be most reluctant to do so. They have ensured that despite their penchant for executive decisions, they protect constitutional governance. Similarly, the media which does not stop reminding us of its ‘principles’ and its contribution to democratic ascendancy may not be ready to lose credibility in the power-game.

Pakistan’s democratic development, at least in recent decades, has not witnessed such a favourable situation where power is dispersed; and incentives to retain democratic system outweigh ‘other’ non-democratic options. Beaten by alarmist predictions and terrible news all the time, we must not give up the ability to be optimistic.

(Raza Rumi is a writer, editor and policy adviser based in Pakistan. He tweets as @razarumi.)

Previously by Raza Rumi in Kafila:

More on politics in Pakistan from Kafila archives:

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