Features | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Battle for Democracy

Democratic forces in Pakistan continue to fight an uphill battle despite a multitude of national challenges.

By Arif Rafiq for

Last week, tens of thousands of protestors descended into the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, demanding that the federal government make sweeping electoral reforms and then give way to an army and judiciary-endorsed caretaker government that would oversee general elections.

The protestors were dedicated, braving the cold, and, at times, rain, for four nights. They were disciplined, following their leader’s command and not engaging in violence. They were organized, staffing themselves with teams to handle emergency medical care, live tweeting, and music. And they were strategic, alternating between Urdu and English-language chants, with different messaging for domestic and foreign consumption. Yet, despite these strengths, they essentially failed.

The protests led by cleric-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri hit a brick wall made of Pakistan’s mainstream, democratic parties. These parties, including members of the governing coalition and opposition, consolidated ranks to block what they viewed was an attempt to sideline them and detour Pakistan’s path to full democracy.

On Wednesday, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif led a meeting with Islamist and ethnic nationalist parties — some of which had previously supported military interventions — to oppose the postponement of the elections and army involvement in the decision-making process. The next day, members of the federal government coalition met with Qadri and negotiated a face-saving settlement that allowed him to nominally claim victory before his followers without having achieved his most important demands. The federal government, meanwhile, avoided having to forcibly evict peaceful protestors from a sensitive area. Federal government spokesman Qamar Zaman Kaira, who the day before performed a brutal impersonation of Qadri in a press conference, spoke before the protesters, hailing them and their leader, and terming the day a victory for democracy.

The events of last Thursday were indeed a victory for democracy, but a victory in a single battle in what will be a long war. Pakistan’s nascent democracy is not yet safe from military Bonapartism, judicial activism, or the moral bankruptcy and incompetence that pervades much, though not all, of its political class. The grudge match to determine the delineation of power in Pakistan continues. But at the same time, it is safe to say that there are fundamental changes in the attitude and behavior of Pakistan’s civilian politicians that bode well for democracy.

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These changes are rooted in the 2006 Charter of Democracy (CoD), an agreement between Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, who was chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at the time. During the 1990s, Bhutto and Sharif mercilessly battled one another while also staving off a predatory military. Each ruled for two truncated terms. And in 1999, Pakistan’s democratic experiment ended when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif and made himself chief executive.

By 2006, Bhutto and Sharif found themselves outside of Pakistan, not only in exile and but almost irrelevant. Musharraf’s approval ratings in Pakistan were high and he was viewed in western capitals as a reformer and an essential partner in the war on terror. With robust economic growth in Pakistan and a host of mega-development projects in the works, including a massive, new Chinese-built port along the Arabian Sea, the two civilian giants of the 1990s were now dwarfs.

With good reason, one could say that a Pakistani Spring began in London in May 2006, when Bhutto and Sharif signed the CoD, a pledge by both parties to commit to dozens of political reforms that would bolster democracy, advance equitable resource sharing, and enhance consensus-building bodies in parliament and other arenas.

The CoD was a landmark achievement in Pakistan’s political history and the product of tough lessons learned by Bhutto and Sharif. Internecine civilian strife during the 1990s strengthened the military’s hand. Bhutto and Sharif realized that the two largest democratic parties must band together to protect their collective political space.

In 2007, Musharraf began secret power sharing talks with Bhutto backed by London and Washington. This was a blatant violation of the CoD. Later that year, he sacked a defiant chief justice and ordered a deadly raid on militant-controlled Islamic institutions in Islamabad, Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa, leading, respectively, to a civil society movement and terrorism wave that would eventually lead to the return of Bhutto and Sharif and relatively free and fair elections in 2008.

Those elections would bring the PPP to power in a coalition government with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League faction (PML-N) — for the first time ever. But that union would not last long. Asif Ali Zardari, who took over the party after Bhutto’s assassination, balked at following through on agreements made with Sharif to implement the CoD and restore the judges deposed by Musharraf in November 2007. And so the PML-N left the coalition at the center and waged a Long March to Islamabad in March 2009. Before the protestors could reach the capital, a deal was reached after the decisive intervention by Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashraf Parvez Kayani. Zardari and then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed to restore the judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The Long March — and perhaps Kayani’s intervention — seemed to have woken up Zardari. That summer, the speaker of the National Assembly (a member of the PPP) formed the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms. Out of that committee has come a series of CoD-inspired constitutional amendments, including the eighteenth amendment, which weakened the power of the presidency, devolved power from the center to the provinces, and created a bipartisan method of making election commission and senior judicial appointments. Similarly, the twentieth amendment provides a bipartisan method of choosing a caretaker prime minister. Together, these amendments offer a break from the zero-sum game of the past and place limits on the potential for intra-civilian strife, reducing the possibility of military intervention.

The presidency retains a great deal of informal power given that Zardari occupies it and heads the PPP, but parliament has become a far more active body. Parliamentary committees, particularly those in the Senate, meet far more regularly than before and are embracing an oversight role. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security, for example, played a lead role in reviewing relations with the United States after the shutdown of the NATO supply route in November 2011.

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Today in Pakistan, a milestone is increasingly in reach: for the first time in its history, the country might have one democratically-elected government pass power on to another. This potential achievement would not only be the product of a chastened military overwhelmed by insurgency and Musharraf’s excess. It would also be the product of a vigilant, pro-democracy civil society and independent media, and a wiser civilian political class.

At the moment, the greatest threat to democracy in Pakistan is not the military, but failing governance by the elected civilian leadership. Pakistan is essentially bankrupt and mired in foreign debt. After witnessing some of Asia’s fastest growth rates under Musharraf, Pakistan’s economy is now trapped in stagflation. Energy shortages have crippled Pakistani industries. State-owned enterprises bleed cash and serve as vehicles of political patronage. Thousands have been killed annually in political violence in Karachi, the largest city, and in terrorist attacks nationwide. For those who survive, the lower courts fail miserably in providing justice.

Much of Pakistan’s middle class continues to look to the army and judiciary for salvation. But the army sits on the sidelines and the Supreme Court, though it is perhaps one of the most activist judiciary in the world, has no capacity or desire to actually govern.

General elections expected this spring could bring in a center-right coalition led by the PML-N, which was involved in its fair share of corruption in the 1990s, though there have been no major allegations against it in recent years. And in contrast to the PPP, the PML-N is replete with electable and competent politicians, like Ahsan Iqbal and Ishaq Dar, who are well-versed in economic and social policy.

The next government must prove in short time that democracy and good governance are not mutually exclusive in Pakistan. It will be an uphill battle. If it fails, Pakistan’s democratic moment will prove to be nothing more than a fleeting moment. 

Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.