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Democracy’s historic redemption in Pakistan April 20, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan , trackback

Guest author: Dr Ashutosh Misra, Associate Investigator, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Griffith University

In the foothills of Margarala, bang opposite the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, lies the mausoleum of former dictator, General Zia-ul Haq, containing few of his remains, including the jaw, recovered from the air crash in 1988. His teeth surely must have been grinding vociferously when a few kilometers away the Pakistan National Assembly passed the historic Eighteenth amendment with the thumping approval of all the parties. The amendment excises the draconian Article 58(2)B which gave the president the powers to dissolve elected national and provincial governments at will; re-christens the North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa; streamlines the appointment process of judges of the Superior judiciary; grants greater autonomy to provinces by abolishing the concurrent list; mandates the appointment of the chief election commissioner in consultation with the opposition leader; and removes the bar on the prime minister to hold the office for only two terms, among other changes.

The repeal of Article 58(2)B is a path-breaking feat of the democratic forces. This article was inserted in the 1973 constitution by General Zia in 1985 under the Eighth amendment, as a trade off for holding elections (albeit party-less). The end-motive was to concentrate draconian powers in the president’s hands in perpetuity, who was then a general too, over the civilian government and prime minister. As expected, the article was invoked several times during the decade of democracy (1988–99) by the president at the behest of the military, in dismissing Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, repeatedly. Unfortunately, due to bitter political vendetta, both leaders failed to unite in the parliament to repeal this article. But, when Nawaz Sharif secured an absolute majority in 1996, he used his numerical strength to scrap the article through the Thirteenth amendment, on April Fool’s day! The move upset the top echelons of the military, and soon it would level with Sharif, when he unceremoniously dismissed Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, triggering the fourth military take over. The article was seen as a necessary evil for the military to maintain its hold over power, and a restive Musharraf, inserted it back in December 2003 under the Seventeenth amendment, with the tacit support of the Islamist party, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Now, with the thumping approval of the Eighteenth amendment, history has repeated itself after 14 years, and Nawaz Sharif is yet again one of the key architects. What is more encouraging is that for once all parties across the board have supported the amendment in one voice.

The long term advantage of the amendment will accrue in addressing Pakistan’s chronic political instability which in the last 60 years has been underpinned by a regular cycle of military coups and failed democratic governments. In popular imaginations, rising extremism and the robust jihadi apparatus in Pakistan are considered to be the engines of instability, but these are mere symptoms of instability. To understand the root cause, one needs to dig deeper in the body-politic of Pakistan, where this historic amendment will bring about a revolutionary metamorphosis.

Pakistani political milieu that embodies the interplay between the three main political forms of government (FOG)—military dictatorship, democracy and Islamism—is a constant interdependent cycle lying at the core of political instability. The three competing FOG are compelled to co-opt each other from time to time because none possesses all the three imperatives of political longevity, i.e., power, authority and legitimacy, independently. This sets in motion an unceasing cycle of triadic interplay in pursuit of borrowed stability, which inherently is unstable in nature.

The military possesses power and authority but lacks legitimacy because it relies on force rather than constitutional means (elections) to acquire power and, since it lacks legitimacy, it has been inclined to align with the Islamists to benefit from their ideological legitimacy. Democracy, on the other hand, lacks power because its rise is subject to the loosening of military’s hold over power, and democratic governments have limited authority due to the overbearing military and constitutionally powerful presidency, something which will now be altered for good. Islamism, on its part lacks power and authority due to its weak political base, conservative agenda and lack of control over state institutions, which makes it reliant on either military or democratic regimes to implement its agenda. However, it does possess ideological legitimacy, due to its Islamic agenda and demand for Sharia rule, but in the absence of power and authority, it is of little political consequence.

Democracy, in Pakistan, despite its inherent ills such as corruption, misgovernance, deep political chasms, and the political opportunism of leaders who align with the military at the first sign of strain and disregard democratic norms, has shown exemplary resilience as a credible alternative to military rule. Moreover, in the wake of rising extremism and widespread public unrest, the military and the United States, the two key players in shaping the nature of the government at the centre, have thrown their weight behind democracy. The rapprochement between Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto in 2007 facilitating her subsequent return, resignation of Pervez Musharraf as army chief, and decision of the new army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani to distance the military from politics are all reflective of a new realization that has germinated in the corridors of General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi and in Washington. In this context the passing of the Eighteenth amendment would augment power and authority of the elected governments and the prime minister, making it less vulnerable to presidential or military’s misadventures. The passing of the Eighteenth amendment means that democracy will be able to acquire all three imperatives on its own and promote political stability.

Democracy in recent years has witnessed steady growth in Pakistan due to widespread public disenchantment with the military’s rule and backlash of General Musharraf’s alliance with the US, which many consider has dragged the country to fight someone’s war and lies at core of all current evils. The return of democracy in the 2008 elections was the culmination of a civilian struggle against the military dictatorship of General Musharraf , epitomized by the unprecedented judicial movement of 2007 to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other 80 judges.

Finally it appears that leaders including President Asif Ali Zardari’s have to respect public sentiments. Initially he has been reluctant to surrender his presidential powers, annul the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) under which he enjoyed immunity from court cases, and reinstate chief justice Chaudhary. Few months back, under excessive public and political pressures, especially from his own party, the PPP, he approved the annulment of NRO and reinstatement of Chaudhry. The only unsettled thorny business was the article 58(2)B which now has also been relegated to the history pages. Eventually, the Charter of Democracy, signed between his late wife Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006, is being adopted. Pakistan today stands at the cusp of a new dawn as democracy receives a new lease of life. The architects of the nation’s destiny have recognized that their best chance of survival lies with democracy.


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