Originally Published 2013-03-30 00:00:00 Published on Mar 30, 2013
Many historic moments have come and gone in Pakistan's 65 years, but never before has a democratically elected government completed a full term. As a "new" Pakistan readies for election, the question is - will Pakistanis make democracy work?
Pakistan --To slither or slip?
So we all know what the euphoria is about. For the first time in Pakistan's 65 years of independence, a democratically elected government has completed its full five-year term. On March 16, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)-led coalition government stepped down, when the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, was dissolved. The country's 'accidental' president and PPP co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, announced that general elections will be held on May 11, 2013 in order to determine the composition of a new National Assembly. In accordance with the 20th Amendment of Pakistan's Constitution, the elections are to be conducted under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government, which has taken charge in the interim.

In a country that has spent nearly three decades under military rule, a democratically-elected government completing a full term is a very big deal indeed. But the question to be addressed is whether we are investing too much faith in this so called "democratic transition".

Let us, for instance, take the Supreme Court's decision to sack former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in 2012. Headed by restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court found Gilani guilty of contempt for refusing to write a letter to the Swiss authorities for re-opening multi-million-dollar graft cases against President Zardari. The Supreme Court's relentless pursuit of President Zardari through the Swiss case, which also embroiled newly appointed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, exposed gaps in the democratic consolidation of the civilian government and its ability to function freely.

The buck did not stop here as the Supreme Court then took on Ashraf and other senior government officials in the rental power case.

These incidents reiterate the increasingly authoritarian predispositions of the emboldened judiciary, which chose to undermine the country's already fragile political and institutional stability. Having said that, nobody was sad to see Gilani go, and the judiciary could also be looked upon as safeguarding against the unconstitutional actions of the government.

Nevertheless, the battle of the civilian institutions, the cause notwithstanding, did nothing to reassure downward spiraling public faith in these transitioning democratic polities. To add to the country's woes, the democratic pinnacle of good governance seemed to be just as elusive. It is perhaps moot to call the regime of President Zardari and his political accomplices as one that epitomizes an era of unprecedented corruption in Pakistan. A poorly managed economy, characterised by high inflation and crippling energy crisis, coupled with increasing incidents of militant and sectarian violence are indicators that the PPP administration failed to perform on almost all accounts of good governance.

In light of this, to suggest that the survival of President Zardari's government hinged on his deft political maneuvering, ameliorated by favorable peripheral circumstances, would not be a gross overstatement. The PPP government was skillful in managing to hold together a shaky coalition as the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP) repeatedly threatened to quit the coalition in lieu of sweeping concessions.

The administration's survival was largely aided by the support of Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N) despite its ministers' resignations from the coalition in 2008, due to disagreements over the restoration of judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf. With Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, as the Chief Minister of Punjab province, the PML -N became a key stakeholder in the stability of the government. This unlikely alliance, created for the greater good of a progressive Pakistan, has already succumbed to political ambition as both parties struggled to reach an agreement over the selection of a caretaker prime minister. The impasse had to eventually be resolved by the election commission.

President Zardari's policy of appeasement with the military, institutionalised through the extension given to Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani by three years, has also contributed to the endurance of his administration. How long this détente would hold is a matter of speculation. The upcoming electoral process has the support of senior members of Pakistan's military establishment, with General Kayani having stated that the military would not interfere in the national elections. It makes one wonder whether the Army's self-imposed backseat is merely a transient occurrence.

International pressure, the current security climate and wider public disgruntlement with Army rule post-Musharraf could be contributing factors. With General Kayani's tenure set to end in November, an element of uncertainty is likely to appear within the strained civilian-military relationship that has characterised Pakistan's political structures up to now. If Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N) wins as predicted, Opposition leader and frontrunner Nawaz Sharif's chequered history with the Army could further disturb this fragile peace.

The Musharraf factor

Former President Pervez Musharraf's return to Pakistan after four years of self-imposed exile has added another facet to the country's political transition. Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999 that deposed the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif. His popularity dipped severely after he sacked judges in 2007, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and his party, All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), subsequently lost the elections in 2008.

In the upcoming elections, Musharraf not only lacks popular support, but he has also failed to secure a significant political base with the MQM denying any reports of alliance. He faces arrest for pending cases that include providing inadequate security for Benazir Bhutto, the death of Baluch leader Akbar Bugti in 2006 and charges of treason for leading the coup in 1999. Musharraf's bravado would also be tested in the light of assassination threats issued by the Pakistani Taliban. While the question of his clout with the Army is ambiguous at best, his return is likely to cause some upheaval within, and between the judicial and military institutions of Pakistan.

The looming question, therefore, is whether the next coalition government would be able to withstand the pressures of these internal dynamics. The assertive judiciary could experience a strategic overhaul with an outgoing chief justice, and the repercussions of a spillover from the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 are also likely to present a formidable challenge.

Though many factors would work against the newly elected government, the volatility of Pakistan's political environment and heterogeneity of powerful actors requires that the success of the first democratic transfer of power must be measured in its mere occurrence. The magnanimity of challenges that await Pakistan's democratisation processes include free and fair elections, sustainable coalitions, as well as compatible civilian, military and judicial institutions. It is only when these processes are stable can the government effectively deal with the structural shortcomings of a struggling economy and deteriorating security situation. While the durability of this democratic transition is questionable, it is nonetheless a step in the right direction and must be considered a critical milestone in the history of Pakistan.

(The writer is a Research Scholar at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : The Pioneer, March 30, 2013

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