Our sickly democracy - Babar Sattar - Saturday, April 30, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=44410&Cat=9

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

In the absence of a functional democracy rooted in constitutionalism and rule of law, is it surprising that civilian control of the military remains elusive in Pakistan? “The wonder... is not why the military rebels against its civilian masters, but why it ever obeys them,” asserted Samuel Finer in his seminal work ‘The man on the horseback’. Students of civil-military relations continue to squabble over the allocation of blame to adventurist khakis and non-performing civilian regimes for the breakdown of democracy. Whether one believes that an over-bloated military keeps democracy weak and dysfunctional by design to guard its turf and create opportunities to assume greater control of the state, or that corrupt and ineffectual political regimes create a vacuum that the khakis are forced to fill, there is agreement that a dysfunctional civilian government partly explains military intervention.

Last week, speaking to officers of Quetta Staff College, the Chief Justice of Pakistan reminded khakis that the principle of civilian control of the military was firmly rooted in the Constitution. He candidly recounted our past for their benefit: ‘The history of Pakistan reflects a recurring conflict between underdeveloped a political system and a well-organised army. When there are political crises, we have witnessed military intervention followed by military rule. Thus, there emerged a vicious circle of brief political dispensation followed by prolonged military rule. This state of affairs brought many setbacks and hampered the process of evolution of constitutionalism and the democratic system of governance.’ He also reiterated the concept of equality before law by reminding the officers that, “the soldier and the citizen stand alike under law...both must obey the command of Constitution and show obedience to its mandate.”

The khakis must not view the Constitution as a useless scripture. It would do this country a whole lot of good if they revisited their sociology and made allegiance to our fundamental law a part of their conception of professionalism. But there has never been much dispute about what the military ought to do from a constitutional perspective. Yet one bleeding heart dictator after another has told us that the skies are about to cave in and if the generals don’t follow their self-assumed obligation (in conflict with dictates of law) to step in and save the nation, we are all doomed. We blame judges for abetting dictators and conjuring up legal fiction for the purpose, as we should. But even if they were to abide by their oath to protect the Constitution and go down fighting, as they must, would it prevent military interference in politics?

This is no apology for the loathsome doctrine of necessity. But will generals suddenly see the light, start taking their oath of allegiance to the Constitution seriously and yield to civilian control? Notwithstanding whether one lays the blame for military takeovers on power-hungry generals or a blundering political elite, the opportunity to intervene in politics will not dry up unless a democratic system of governance delivers, political parties emerge as representative institutions, politics is focused on policy-making and not power grab alone, and political culture accommodates integrity, dissent and merit. We can continue to cry conspiracy, but so long as dividends of democracy do not trickle down to the ordinary citizen, the polity will remain vulnerable to generals lurking in the shadows.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ edited by Dr Maleeha Lodhi and recently published is recommended reading for anyone interested in finding solutions to the myriad problems confronting us as a nation-state. It addresses the whole gamut of issues holding up our potential ranging from myopic ideology, skewed foreign policy, tenuous economy and civil-military imbalance to the crisis of energy and education. Given that the contributors are not foreigners, the analysis, critique, solutions, frustrations and hope that it presents are indigenous. Members of our elites (especially political elites) who view themselves as agents of progression and change would do well to read the book and especially the chapter authored by Dr Lodhi.

Undemocratic party structures, a feudal-tribal culture, and politics of patronage as opposed to policy are three of the main weaknesses identified by Dr Lodhi that create a disconnect between civilian governance and public service. Presently, there is no separation between a political party as an institution and its top leadership. In the absence of institutional autonomy or shared decision-making, the policies of the party are essentially the whims of its leader. The barriers to entry and upward progression within parties prevent them from grooming leaders and nurturing the talent, ideas and expertise required to run a government.

The institutional deficiencies are compounded by the power elites’ ‘feudal-tribal’ style of conducting politics that fuels sycophancy and shuns dissent, and is described by Dr Lodhi as, “personalised, based on ‘primordial’ social hierarchies, characterised by patronage seeking activity and preoccupied with protecting and promoting their economic interests and privileged status.” Such autocratic party structure and political culture directs the focus of politics toward acquiring the spoils of office to reward ‘clients’ and buttress traditional networks of patronage and political support, as opposed to seeking public office to implement policies and improve the system of governance for the benefit of all citizens.

We saw Benazir Bhutto gift her father’s party to her son through a will. We see Shahbaz Sharif’s son being treated as heir apparent of the PML-N. We witness Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali, Fazalur Rehman, Altaf Hussain and the Chaudharies lord over their respective parties on an everyday basis. There is no room for dissent within political parties. Be it Aitzaz Ahsan, Shah Memood Qureshi or Safdar Abbasi of the PPP or Javed Hashmi of the PML-N, any independent thinking amounts to disloyalty, attracts the ire of the party leader and clips the dissenter’s role within the party.

Javed Hashmi exhibited tremendous character when he expressed shame for supporting a dictator two and half decades back. He showed remarkable courage when he called upon the Sharifs to assume responsibility for past choices and actions. Would Nawaz Sharif not emerge as a bigger man if he took Javed Hashmi’s advice and apologised to the nation for being a part of the Zia regime? And do members of the PPP who celebrated Mr Hashmi’s speech in the National Assembly not see the hypocrisy in their perfect ease with Asif Zardari treating the PPP as his personal fief?

Do they not realise that given the ideology, manifesto and political program of the PPP, their party has nothing in common with the PML-Q, except the shared desire of their respective leaders to distribute the spoils of office amongst themselves and their cronies?

Democracy is more than a process. Its pith and substance is a system of governance that protects and serves the interests of ordinary citizens, regardless of their political preferences. It is in upholding the substance of democracy that ineffectual civilian governments falter and as a consequence cede political space to generals. While uninterrupted political process is imperative to realise the dividends of democracy, public support for such continuity cannot be fostered by a ruling political elite visibly unresponsive to public needs.

The message of hope springing out of Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State is the inevitability of change being ushered in by a growing, informed and assertive middle class together with a free and vocal media. Pakistan is not ready to suffer another khaki saviour. But neither is it willing to put up indefinitely with autocratic civilian regimes engaged in a transactional relationship with ordinary people, reducing them to petty clients. Business, as usual, is no longer sustainable. Political parties can either become vehicles for change or get wiped away as agents of the status quo.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

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