NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 8

Pakistan’s democratic crossroads

The issue of holding national elections scheduled for February 8, 2024, in a timely manner has escalated to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This follows a peculiar resolution by a handful of senators in the Upper House advocating for the postponement of elections due to harsh weather conditions in certain parts of the country. Dark clouds are gathering over democracy in the nation, exacerbated by recent developments, including the Senate resolution, statements from political figures like Fazl-ur-Rahman of Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and the resignation of the Election Commission of Pakistan secretary. There is a growing concern that elections might indeed be postponed, constituting a complete violation of the Constitution.

The constitutional framework has already faced severe blows in the past when elections were not conducted within the mandated 90-day timeframe in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces after their respective provincial assemblies were dissolved by their chief ministers. Failure to hold the scheduled elections on February 8, 2024, would have significant consequences for the state and society.

The primary ramification of election postponement would be the indefinite delay of these crucial polls, leading to a state of uncertainty regarding the timing of future national elections. Such a scenario would result in the complete derailment of democracy in Pakistan. The most distressing aspect is that the country would incur an incalculably high political and economic cost due to this derailment. It is worth noting that the derailment of democracy would mark the natural demise of the country’s parliamentary political system. While some argue that this system has failed to provide much-needed political stability, others contend that it has allowed non-elected and non-democratic institutions to intervene in political affairs, suspending or restoring the system according to their interests.

Remarkably, the consensus among nearly all political groups, albeit pseudo ones, in favor of derailing democracy is a significant development in Pakistan’s history. Unlike previous instances where military dictators unilaterally derailed democracy, this time, most political parties are actively contributing to the process. This underscores a crucial point – the so-called political parties under the parliamentary system have been in name only. Their decision-making process lacks genuine debate and discussion, central to the essence of politics. Instead, these parties often function as authoritarian bodies, primarily driven by personal and familial agendas for attaining state and governmental power, with little regard for public or national interests.

Therefore, the reluctance of parties like Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Awami National Party (ANP), Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and others to hold elections is seen as mere lip service, given their unpopularity resulting from a perceived failure to address public needs during their prolonged tenures in power. The apparent insistence on timely elections from these parties is viewed with skepticism, as it appears to be nothing more than a façade, lacking genuine commitment to democratic principles.

The case of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is noteworthy in this context. While the party expresses a desire for elections, it appears to lack a clear agenda beyond obtaining political power. The PTI, led by the incarcerated Imran Khan, seeks elections seemingly driven by its leader’s current popularity, fueled by an anti-establishment and anti-American narrative adopted since his removal from power in April 2022. However, there is uncertainty regarding the PTI’s roadmap and specific plans upon regaining power. The question lingers: can Imran Khan and his party articulate with certainty what the PTI’s course of action would be post-election?

Critics argue that merely attaining power holds little value if a party lacks a well-defined plan for governance and system reform. Despite Mr. Khan’s previous stint in power, the PTI failed to implement substantial reforms, and some contend that the system has become even more corrupt. While commendable social welfare programs like the Sehat Insaf Card were introduced, there is criticism that a comprehensive policy for systemic reform in various sectors, including health, education, and social welfare, was lacking.

In the event of a delay in the scheduled elections on February 8 and the subsequent derailment of democracy, there is speculation about the emergence of a democratic movement. However, this movement is envisioned to be distinct, not led by existing political parties, but rather by the people themselves. The question of leadership in such a scenario arises organically, with individuals rising to the occasion based on the circumstances. An example is the recent emergence of former civil judge Sher Afzal Marwat, who strategically filled a leadership vacuum in the PTI, garnering public support and popularity.

The potential for a people-driven movement for genuine democracy extends beyond party affiliations, involving activists at the grassroots level. The movement is anticipated to attract a diverse demographic, including not only economically disadvantaged and unemployed individuals but also financially secure and employed citizens from various sectors. Widespread frustration among Pakistanis is seen as a catalyst for such a movement, with the hope that it evolves into a democratic force beneficial for the country.

Crucially, a democratic movement of this nature is expected to target not only undemocratic forces but also scrutinize the actions of so-called political parties. The aspiration is that the emergence of a democratic system garners support from those in positions of power, recognizing that they too share frustrations with the current state of affairs in the country.