EVER since the independence of our country, we have been hearing from our political leaders or the “Torch Bearers of Democracy” consistently a few well know sentences: “Our country is going through a critical phase.”, “We are facing numerous challenges.”, and “Democracy is under threat.” It is a fact that political process has never had a smooth sailing in Pakistan; it faces crisis after crisis. We hear different reasons for the fragile state of our democratic system. Some politicians regard military interventions as the main cause while others blame their political opponents.
It is true that Pakistan has been ruled by military rulers for about three decades but if we go through our political history, we find several other reasons in addition to the aforementioned one. Some of the reasons mentioned in the history textbooks include: delay in Constitution making, feudalism, mass illiteracy, inherited politics and so on. Although some of these reasons make sense but we are living in a different era now. Our literacy rate has improved. Print and electronic media is playing a vital role in educating masses about political system. Slowly and gradually feudalism is vanishing from our politics.
The Constitutional amendments have closed the doors for a military intervention but still democracy is under threat which may lead us to the conclusion that the biggest threat to democracy is the undemocratic mindset of our politicians and they, by themselves, are responsible for all this mess. Our political leaders lack the ability of learning from their mistakes which gives an opportunity to their opponents, as well as the foreign anti-Pakistan forces, to create an atmosphere of political restlessness in the country. Panama leaks emerged as the latest threat to democracy in Pakistan.
PML-N government is under siege for the second time in its three years tenure after a massive leak of 11.5 million tax documents which exposed the secret offshore dealings of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children alongwith several other world leaders, strangely having no mention of other politicians and bigwigs who are expert money launderers and have known businesses and assets and properties in foreign countries. Prime Minister’s media team tried to diffuse the intensity of situation by their silver tongued spokespersons on media and regarded the allegations as a conspiracy against democratic government but when some PPP leaders joined hands with PTI the Prime Minister had no option but to write to Chief Justice of Pakistan for an inquiry commission.
Since the opposition parties were not consulted in formulating the Terms of Reference, they rejected those terms and demanded an independent investigation into the revelations made by Panama leaks. The political leaders are repeating the mantra of democracy is under threat. Previously in 2014 the “Tsunami” march by PTI against alleged electoral rigging and 126 days sit-in in the Federal capital kept the government on its heels for a long time. Some political pundits declared 2014 as new elections’ year. Fortunately the rest of the opposition parties stood by the government which helped them to survive that Tsunami.
PPP and its allies completed its five years term under similar circumstances. After the 2008 General Elections, every year was predicted to be new elections’ year. Events like movement of restoration of judiciary and PML-N led million march to Islamabad made the then government under immense pressure and the country was on the verge of a political chaos when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced restoration of Chief Justice. Later the same Chief Justice sent him home by founding him guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. Supreme Court’s verdict came amid a sit-in led by Dr.Tahir-ul-Qadri against government in Islamabad which led to a period of restlessness for the government. Democracy was again under threat. These incidents were not new for our country. In Pakistan, democracy and political uncertainty go side by side ever since its inception.
It all started when Pakistan’s 3rd Governor General Ghulam Muhammad dismissed the then elected Prime Minister Khawaja Nazim-ud-din in April 1953 and appointed Muhammad Ali Bogra, a rather less popular person as Prime Minister. Later, Bogra attempted to lessen the Governor General’s powers but before doing so, Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the Constituent Assembly. He devalued the nascent democratic norms by these acts and set a precedent for later rulers. Later Sikander Mirza, the first President of Pakistan facilitated the country’s first martial law. Later on a faction of Pakistan Muslim League named Convention Muslim League supported Gen. Ayub Khan in 1965 Presidential elections.
Similarly the political conflict between the ruling leftist Pakistan Peoples Party and right wing opposition Pakistan National Alliance over alleged electoral rigging, took a violent turn and more than 200 people were killed in the clashes between security forces and demonstrators. Democracy was again under threat. Those violent protests and chaos paved way for the military to intervene and take control of the situation. In a democratic country the military coup cannot be justified in any way but it is a bitter truth that in both of the aforementioned instances the political forces created such an environment in which a military takeover seemed justified.
Decent politicians and transparent political parties are the cornerstone to a workable political system. Apart from a few names, all of the politicians in our country are controversial in one way or the other. Power politics has remained the hallmark of our political system throughout the history. Over the years political system has evolved in such a way that a common man cannot even think of making his way to the Parliament or Prime Minister house. Even if a common man becomes member of a political party he never gets a party ticket to contest elections for NA or PA. Moreover, our political parties lack internal democracy. Some of the parties conduct intra-party elections as a formality but nobody dares to contest elections against his leader. Consequently leaders of our political parties can be termed as autocrats in a way. Political parties are famous in the name of their leaders. Personification has harmed the true essence of democracy in Pakistan. People do not take into consideration political parties’ election manifestos. They vote for candidates on the basis of ethnicities, “biradri” and other such factors.
In order to strengthen democracy we need to reform the whole system as everything is interrelated. We need to look at all the components, be they politicians themselves, political parties, the electoral system or the election regulator, which is the Election Commission. Strengthening the Election Commission is of vital importance. Free and fair elections are not possible without a strong and independent Election Commission. We need to come up with a new management structure to make sure that political parties belong to and work for the people. Their budgets and books must be transparent and, if any executives or politicians violate the laws, penalties must be severe with no statutes of limitations to the point where some of them may not be able to enter politics again and their parties are dissolved.
Much of this depends on the people’s participation; in other words, relations between the people and the political parties as well as the politicians. This can be achieved through educating public about the democratic norms and the importance of democratic system. We need to put in place some measures to screen bad politicians and this should come with harsh penalties when they break the laws. The biggest threat to democratic system is the flaws in its elements. After eliminating these flaws, the democratic system will be able to take care of itself and will not be dependent on politicians or political parties.
— The writer is a freelance columnist based in Germany.