ANALYSIS: Yes democracy, no democracy —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi - Sunday, October 17, 2010

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Democracy has lost its shape in Pakistan because every leader and political party wants to be democratic in a manner that their personal and party interests are advanced and their political adversaries are placed at a disadvantage

If a country can become democratic on the basis of sloganeering by political leaders, Pakistan would have been the most democratic country in the world. All political leaders express their support for democracy and fully commit themselves to implementing it in the country.

If most political leaders and societal groups love and support democracy, why has Pakistan not become a democratic country? The answer to this question underlines the need for going beyond pro-democracy sermons. The political and societal leaders should imbibe a democratic culture that reflects governance, political management and societal interaction. The political and societal leaders must observe democratic values and principles when they pursue their partisan interests.

In reality, Pakistan’s politics are highly personalised and are mostly driven by non-democratic considerations and interests. Democracy has lost its shape in Pakistan because every leader and political party wants to be democratic in a manner that their personal and party interests are advanced and their political adversaries are placed at a disadvantage. Democracy and national interests are equated with party interest. Therefore, every party considers itself to be fully democratic and describes its political adversaries as a threat to democracy.

Three aspects of Pakistani politics raise doubts about the future of democracy. These are: the idiom of political leaders, the method and style of politics and the limited use of the elected assemblies for political conflict management and resolution.

The idiom of the political leaders is mostly non-democratic and highly contentious, negating the letter and spirit of democracy. The PML-N openly advocated a ‘free-for-all’ confrontation when governor’s rule was imposed in Punjab by the federal government (February-March 2009) and it called upon the police and civil servants to defy the government. The senior PML-N leaders, especially Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, have now returned to similar rhetoric, using highly confrontational language against the federal government and especially President Asif Ali Zardari. Both Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif have accused Zardari of corruption and plunder and of keeping the money earned by such means in Swiss banks. They demanded that these funds be returned to the Pakistani state. Other PML-N leaders were no less vocal in directly attacking Zardari in the PML-N’s public meeting in Lahore on October 12. The PML-N’s anger increased after the appointment of Justice (retired) Deedar Ali Shah as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

The style and method of politics are also devoid of the democratic spirit. The latest threat by Shahbaz Sharif to launch another ‘long march’ does not augur well for the future of democracy. Some of the leading PML-N leaders, especially the provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and the federal Law Minister Babar Awan engage in an unnecessary war of words. Their provocative rhetoric spoils the environment for political management. The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, appears to be in an angry mood all the time and does not miss an opportunity for a verbal outburst against the federal government, especially Asif Ali Zardari.

Rana Sanaullah and Babar Awan enjoy respect in their respective parties for rough talking. Their colleagues do not advise restraint. If rude and provocative discourse continues to characterise the interaction between the two major parties, others will adopt the same style, which will increase conflict and indecency in politics.

The corollary of a non-democratic idiom and style of politics is the neglect of parliament and provincial assemblies for political conflict management and resolution. The politicians often threaten to launch street agitation. In fact, the political leaders prefer to raise contentious issues in public meetings and the media rather than on the floor of the house. For example, no resolution was moved in any house of parliament for the restoration of the chief justice and other judges; the political parties and leaders preferred to raise the issue outside parliament. Most other controversies between the federal government and the opposition, especially the PML-N, are debated outside parliament.

The centrality of the elected assemblies in the political system depends on how the political parties use them. If attendance stays short and a large number of members do not take much interest in turning these institutions into the focal points of the political system, the elected assemblies will continue to suffer from a crisis of confidence. Nowadays, when the PML-N does not have enough votes in the National Assembly to pass a vote of no-confidence against the federal government, it is relying on extra-parliamentary pressures to bring it down.

The federal government is also responsible for its current predicament. Despite its electoral legitimacy, the PPP has not been able to acquire performance legitimacy, especially because of poor governance and failure to assure the ordinary people that it is working for their socio-economic welfare. The floods have accentuated the PPP’s problems but it has also not shown any significant initiative to effectively cope with the post-flood problems of the ordinary people. Some good initiatives like the Watan Card Scheme have been partly neutralised due to mismanagement by the bureaucracy.

The federal government could improve its interaction with the Supreme Court (SC) by implementing the NRO judgment against those serving in the government by removing them. After all, constitutional immunity under Article 248(2) applies only to the president. The removal of some federal ministers and advisers would also rationalise the unwieldy size of the federal cabinet.

The PML-N has announced its support to the SC in the hope that the latter will deliver some judgment to embarrass the prime minister or disqualify President Zardari. The PML-N has also issued a charge sheet against Pervez Musharraf that amounts to killing two birds with one stone. Strong pressure has been built on Pervez Musharraf who had made adverse comments against Nawaz Sharif. By asking the federal government to initiate a high treason court case against Musharraf, the PML-N has saved itself from initiating legal proceedings against Musharraf. As the federal government is not expected to initiate the case, the PML-N gets a new opportunity to criticise the federal government.

If the confrontation between the PML-N and the PPP escalates in the tradition of the 1990s and the SC delivers a judgment directly against Zardari or embarrasses the federal government, Pakistan may move in the direction of the total collapse of the current political order. The military, already busy with security and humanitarian tasks, may find it difficult to stay aloof.

The writer is a political and defence analyst

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