NationalVolume 13 Issue # 13

Is democracy on track in Pakistan?

With a new wave of judicial activism, the military’s adherence to its professional role, the civilian rulers defying both the military and judiciary while the media hyperactive in the country as tribune, the most important question in today’s Pakistan is whether democracy in the country is on the right track or the country’s experience with democracy would be short-lived.


The political situation in the country is fraught with contradictions. This can be gauged from the fact that even the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), having its government at the centre and the largest province of the country, the Punjab, is crying foul. The party is complaining of the “unjustified” ouster of its founder and patron, Nawaz Sharif as prime minister by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the charges of not being truthful while facing substantive charges of large-scale corruption. Having all the state institutions under the federal government’s thumb sans the higher judiciary and the military, the ouster of Sharif is, indeed, very surprising. Because the Sharif family has had near totalitarian control over various government departments thanks to at least 30 years of a continual grip over power in the Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan. Now the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) under the direction and tutelage of the SCP has taken up old and new corruption references and cases against the Sharif family and there is a great likelihood that multiple cases might find Sharif and his family guilty of financial corruption. Apparently, the Sharif family, which still has one of its key members, Shahbaz Sharif working as chief minister of the Punjab, seeing its political downfall, is trying to create a perception within the public that the higher judiciary, NAB and other institutions are targeting the family. The family and its government ministers in the federal government and the Punjab have indirectly pointed fingers at the country’s security establishment for stage-managing the situation.


Obviously, sensing its possible political death round the corner, the three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif along with his henchmen and henchwomen is trying to bring down the whole political system and the democratic edifice. There is plausible reason for Sharifs to do that because in the existing political system they would not have any scope to make a political comeback; as they lose more power after the completion of the tenures of the present federal and the Punjab government, NAB and other agencies would emerge stronger and the corruption charges against them might prove correct. So Sharifs think that the best way to save their skins and to keep them relevant in politics and the political system of Pakistan, is to call into question the key institutions of the system, specifically, the judiciary and military. This does not augur well for the process of democracy in Pakistan; if the process gets derailed, it would be extremely difficult for bringing it back on track.


Here it is important to note that there might be multiple weaknesses and grave problems with the existing democratic political system of Pakistan but whatever good we could see today unfolding in the shape of judicial activism, the media’s watchdog role and the military’s distancing itself from the political arena, is because of the continuity of the political process. Noticeably, it is the third successive government which would be completing its tenure. Previously it was the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid led government (2002-2007) and Pakistan People’s Party-led regime (2008-2013) which completed their respective constitutional periods. There has been a kind of unstable stability in the political system of Pakistan and this needs to be acknowledged by all those who value democracy and people’s rights.


A key factor of instability in the country has been the unprecedented wave of terrorism in the name of Islam. This wave which roughly commenced from 2007 and lasted till 2016 and still has not completely died down has had undercut the capacity and performance of the parliament, civilian bodies and has badly affected governance. This has been particularly so because the politicians have been the target of the terrorists, who have maintained the democratic political dispensation as being against their and the “people’s” interest. It was the parliament which created consensus regarding the state response to terrorists and extremists and it was the parliamentary guidance and political ownership by all stakeholders across the political spectrum which motivated the military to fight the terrorists.


So whatever might be the flaws of the existing political system, the way forward for Pakistan is this system or, perhaps, another system arguably presidential, but it has to be political. No dispensation driven by a technocracy, bureaucracy or the military is the answer to the functioning and development of the state of Pakistan. This realization is very important for the Pakistani masses and particularly the leadership. While this realization seems to be extensively there within the higher judiciary of Pakistan and can be ascertained from statements of Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar that his institution, which is the guardian of the constitution, won’t let democracy derail. Here it is also important to point towards the fact that the present judicial activism is not by design but seems to be by default. The power vacuum due to the bad governance in the country and lack of seriousness on part of the federal government has sucked in the judiciary to induce the administration to perform better.


It is heartening to see that the military, which in the past has usurped state powers in Pakistan several times, is today avowedly all for democracy and the constitution of the democratic dispensation. This is the single most important support to democracy in the country.


Although the media as a whole lacks the requisite intellectual capacity, still its role in strengthening democracy has been commendable. The signs of fatigue amongst the masses from political debate and discussions on prime time TV shows may be there, but still these shows have played a critical role in bringing on to the public’s and policymakers’ agenda relevant political issues. The role of the media in the Panama corruption scandal regarding the Sharif family has been historic. Politicians in the opposition must understand that their importance has mainly been due to the media support because, historically, the media has always challenged the wrongdoings of rulers in support of democratic forces.


Thus, there may be serious issues with the political system of the country and the quality of democracy in Pakistan leaves a lot to be desired, but again the way forward is democracy. To address the ills of democracy there should be more democracy, as has been wisely observed.