By S. Akbar Zaidi
November 3, 2017
Indians wouldn’t know much about democratic transitions. However, numerous countries which have had military rule, often for decades, have had to pass through pivotal moments in their processes of democratisation. The paths have varied, as have circumstances and expectations. There have been reversals, counter coups, revolutions and so-called ‘springs’, and some successes and many failures. Transitional paths are littered with diverse examples of a wide variety. Often international and regional powers upset domestic processes.
After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt followed by a democratic victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, we ended up with a former military general backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In Thailand, a long democratic transition found complete reversal with the military coup of 2014, and now three years later, elections seem a long way away. In Indonesia, the democratic transition, after 32 years of military rule, in 1998 took at least ten or so years before Indonesia was said to have become a more stable democracy. Most countries in Latin America seem to have made perhaps the strongest and most thorough transitions towards democratisation, albeit, as the cases of Brazil and Venezuela show, not without their own specific problems and issues.
In South Asia, despite its flawed democracy, the military seems to have been sufficiently marginalised in Bangladesh, to ensure that it remains a democracy, and if there are any threats to democracy in Bangladesh, they are on account of its civilian politics – much like Zimbabwe – not the military. In Myanmar, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess if any transition towards democratic rule has even been made. Turkey’s strong anti-military democratic tradition has morphed into a civilian authoritarianism.
If each case offers very specific circumstances to how democratic transitions faltered or progressed, Pakistan’s incomplete transition, while still underway, has its own set of specificities which makes generalisation difficult. The wobbly transition since 2008 still continues, though not without its challenges.
While 2008 was rightly celebrated as the year when a military dictator was forced out by civil and political forces, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who was elected that year, was forced to relinquish power in 2012 and was replaced by another of his party. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, which allowed the PPP to win power and oust General Pervez Musharraf, real power rested with Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP, who became President of Pakistan in 2008. Following Pakistan’s much-celebrated first civilian democratic transition in 2013 — Nawaz Sharif was elected Prime Minister, and since he was from Punjab, had a complete majority in parliament and was seen as the establishment’s man — many of us were convinced that the next step of strengthening democracy, the ‘two turnover test’, when two relatively peaceful civilian elections take place, was set to take place effortlessly in 2018. While this is still a probability, with Mr. Sharif being debarred from public office by the Supreme Court in July this year, he joined the long list of the 19 Pakistani Prime Ministers, elected and appointed, none of whom finished their full terms in office. While Pakistan might pass the ‘two turnover test’, it still has to wait to have a full one-term Prime Minister.
Pakistan is a country of conspiracy theories, and as social scientists, we often do not know the truth. The dismissal of Mr. Sharif was done by the Supreme Court on grounds of misreporting his income to the Election Commission of Pakistan. He has been barred from contesting elections, although there has been some debate amongst lawyers whether this ban is for life or not. Regardless of the nature of the ban, what continues to be discussed in the media, always as proof and never as speculation or conjecture, is that it was the military which put pressure on the judiciary so that it gave a verdict which ousted Mr. Sharif. Even international newspapers and magazines quote respected Pakistani journalists and anonymous military sources stating that ‘the Supreme Court knew which way the Army wanted to go, and obliged’. A retired general has stated that the Army was ‘definitely’ behind this ouster, for the “judges would not have had the courage to do what they did otherwise”.
Perhaps the judges did. The truth is that we really don’t know. One could argue that democracy (or Nawaz Sharif) had not acquired the strength or confidence as yet to take on the military over some fundamental policy issue, and there seems to be no apparent reason for the military either to push Mr. Sharif out. He was not rocking any military boat and was busy building power plants and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, going about his job in an apparently non-obtrusive manner with the economy showing signs of significant improvement. There was no apparent tension brewing, no signs to challenge the military’s well-established control of foreign policy or that with regard to India or Afghanistan, or of the military’s anti-militancy programme which the civilian government supported. It is only after the fact that people have said that the military had a hand in his ouster, but again, reason and rationale seem to be lacking.
Even though Mr. Sharif was removed as Prime Minister, the government got another one – just like in 2012 – and has continued its daily duties with an eye to the elections in the summer of 2018. There is clearly an absence of leadership and civilian power, or confidence, which there were signs of under Mr. Sharif, but there is some business as usual. In fact, perhaps because there is no strong single leader, some progress has been made on some fronts. For example, while Mr. Sharif was Prime Minister, Pakistan did not have a Foreign Minister, but the current Foreign Minister has been emboldened enough to even criticise the U.S. Similarly, another senior Minister, the Interior Minister, has, through social media, even criticised the Chief of the Army Staff’s interfering comments about the state of Pakistan’s economy. He even went on to say, on Facebook, that “some hidden hands and inertia of history are trying to drift the democratic process into [the] same old design” (meaning coups), but “we will break the cycle this time as all are committed to preserving continuity of [the] democratic process”.
Perhaps the only worrying sign is that the Pakistan military continues to tweet that it supports democracy.
Capacity for Attrition
One consequence of the disqualification of Mr. Sharif will be that while he may emerge as godfather, like Mr. Zardari of the PPP, others in his Pakistan Muslim League (N) will get a chance to lead and perhaps this may allow many other voices to emerge, as his absence has already made possible. Without an established and strong centre in his party, the chances of re-election might also be undermined, and this might allow the military and other anti-democratic forces to manipulate intra-party fissures in Mr. Sharif’s party, creating an opening for Imran Khan’s pro-military, conservative Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to become a serious contender for power.
It seems that Pakistan’s democratic challenges will continue to entangle with the more conventional civilian/military contestation over hegemony and power, as well as new challenges related to intra and inter-party dynamics.
S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He also teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi