By Abdullah Zaidi
20 Mar 2015
As Pakistan enters its eighth year of uninterrupted civilian rule there is a significant question mark over the dividends of democracy. Given the various challenges that are on their way, doubts about democracy are set to increase. It is therefore important to take stock of how far we have come and what are the setbacks sustained.
The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development & Transparency (PILDAT) released a report on the state of democracy in Pakistan last month. The report provides a qualitative Assessment as well as a framework with different pillars on which the quality of democracy is scored. In the year 2015 the quality of democracy scored 43% as compared to 54% in 2013 – a drop of 11 percentage points. One can reasonably attribute the high score in 2013 to the first-ever democratic transfer of power between two civilian governments. Elections were followed by smooth transitions in key state institutions such as judiciary and the military, which also helped the democratic process. Thereafter, several factors contributed to the decrease in the quality of democracy.
The allegations of rigging in the 2013 elections followed by the protests by PTI and PAT caused to weaken the state of democracy in the country. The protests turned out to be a serious threat to the tenure of elected civilian government. The crisis also exposed the dismal state of the Election Commission’s Complaint Redressing Mechanism.
The second offshoot of this crisis was the foray of military in political space. The Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif’s alleged mediation between PTI, PAT and the government increased the imbalance in the civil-military relations. This ascendancy increased manifolds with the terrorist attack on Army Public School followed by the formation of military courts. It seems as if the civilian leadership has willingly taken a backseat and the thrust of security, defence and foreign policy is back with the military. There is also a palpable increase in the profile of military leadership as it organizes trips to major ally countries to deliberate over policy issues. According to scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, “Pakistan today is a hybrid-military rule. The issue is that there is nothing like guided democracy especially when the armed forces begin to believe they know how to do things better than others. They crowd out institutions and this is what will happen now.”
Another issue which mars democracy consolidation is of governance. The plight of local governments, with the exception of Balochistan, is a huge question mark on the democratic credentials of political parties, especially the PPP and the PML-N, which have been in power in Sindh and Punjab for the past seven years. They continue to defy the constitutional imperative of holding local government elections and thus stifle the growth of an important tier of democracy. Accordingly, the PILDAT report gives the sub-pillar of Decentralization a low score of 41% which is only a marginal improvement over 40% during the pre-2008 Musharraf regime.
Political parties are the building blocks of any democracy. The internal democracy in most political parties of Pakistan is next to none. Barring a few exceptions, the parties do not have rigorous internal elections which results in a weak party structure. The performance of the Parliament is also a cause of concern especially under the Nawaz regime. There is a tendency in the Prime Minister and the cabinet members to take the Parliament for granted which is an untoward departure from the PPP government’s penchant for a galvanized lower house. Accordingly the ‘Effectiveness of Parliament’ received a 47% score for 2015 compared to an average of 51.3% during PPP tenure in the PILDAT assessment.
There is however an outlier more dangerous than those discussed above. The attack on Geo Television journalist Mr Hamid Mir and its fallout should be dubbed as the most damning episode for democracy in recent years. In this regard, many quarters including the PILDAT report rightly call for greater regulation of media and implementation of codes of conduct but that is missing the forest for the trees. Geo TV may have aired unsubstantiated allegations against the ISI chief, but that is not the original sin. Such episodes, although regrettable, do take place in this age of electronic media. Media codes of conduct are notoriously difficult to draw and implement even in countries which have a greater democratic traditions such as India. It is the fierce and unyielding hounding of a media organization by the country’s premier intelligence agency that will continue to undermine democracy in the long run. Not only did it shrink space for debate but it has also reversed the positive strides taken for media freedom in the past decade. According to senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, “There is no question of media regulation. It is supposed to be self-regulated. There should have been a debate about threats to media freedom but it was diverted due to the internal rivalry.”
There is however a section that sees the glass half full. Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, President of National Party, an ally of the Nawaz government, thinks that despite everything democracy has muddled along. “If you look at major milestones of the democratic process such as the senate elections, they have been achieved,” said Mr Bizenjo. He concedes though that the dual challenge of terrorism and governance will continue to haunt democracy.
In conclusion, the process of democracy consolidation is fraught with contradictions despite crossing the psychological barrier of first democratic transition of power. The positives are few and far between. It seems as if all major stakeholders have worked more towards chipping away at democracy than adding value to it. A lot is yet to be done in order to put Pakistan firmly on the path of democratic rule.
Abdullah Zaidi is a freelance writer