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A pro-democracy wind?

September 12, 2013


WILL the fair wind blowing across our political landscape contribute to the founding and consolidation of democratic conventions? The prospects seem to have brightened.

There was good reason to celebrate the completion of the democratically elected National Assembly’s normal term, the holding of general elections despite militants’ threats of disruption, and acceptance of poll results by all the main parties despite serious allegations of foul play by some contenders, and the orderly installation of a new, duly elected government.

There is also valid reason to acclaim as democracy’s triumph the fact that Mr Asif Ali Zardari has become the first civilian head of the Pakistan state to complete his tenure, the only one whose term was not cut short by death or disease nor curtailed by exogenous factors.

(Of the nine civilian heads of state preceding Mr Zardari, the Quaid-i-Azam passed away after 13 months in office; Khwaja Nazimuddin climbed down after three years; Malik Ghulam Mohammad was shoved out after four years; Iskander Mirza was overthrown after two; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stepped down after less than two years; Chaudhry Fazal Ilahi spent his final year in the presidency at the military ruler’s sufferance; and Messrs Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Ahmad Leghari and Rafiq Tarar were given marching orders before their tenure was due to expire.)

Not only did Mr Zardari receive an appropriate send-off, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif surprised the hawks in his retinue by waxing eloquent about the services of the outgoing president’s party at a formal luncheon. Mr Zardari reciprocated the friendly gesture by accepting Mr Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and putting off politicking for five years.

Regardless of the cynics’ speculation as to who was throwing a lifeline to whom, the message to the people was clear and refreshing — that political parties may disagree and compete with one another as rivals but they cannot afford to be permanent enemies, and that they must stick together to face extra-constitutional challenges.

If this inter-party understanding can be sustained for a couple of decades, it will be a major contribution to the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan.

One should have liked also to see in the current emphasis on dealing with issues of national importance (unfortunately on a selective basis though) the possibilities of democratic consolidation through a broad-based consensus.

The outcome of last Monday’s all-party conference has, however, shown that effective and concerted action by the whole nation demands much more than grandiose rhetoric. In the conference declaration, quite a few worn-out clichés — about inclusive processes, safeguarding of national sovereignty and integrity, trust in the armed forces, unacceptability of drone attacks, et al — have been raised to the level of national mottoes.

There is considerable agreement in the country on rejection of war as the option of the first resort and on the need to talk to the militants but it is doubtful if there is a consensus on unconditional talks and that too from a position of weakness.

It seems the state does not even want to mention militants’ atrocities such as the attack on the D.I. Khan prison, nor is it keen on demanding the surrender of the convicts/suspects released in such raids.

It is easy to declare “that we shall ourselves determine the means and mode of fighting this war in our national interest and shall not be guided by the United States of America or any other country in this regard”. But how does one justify identifying one external party and not identifying the militants’ holy patrons?

Besides, where is the evidence of freedom from the constraints voluntarily assumed, under both domestic and external pressures, that have obliged Pakistan to compromise its freedom of action for five decades or more?

This does not mean that all consensus-building efforts should be given up; one is only concerned here with the need to seek consensus within the limits of feasibility and practicality, otherwise the very expression will lose its lustre.

Besides, there is an obvious need to explore the possibilities of consensus not only as a way to strengthen the government’s hands in difficult situations but also to promote the pluralist interests of the people through national reconciliation and impersonal governance.

The 18th Amendment has thrown a challenge to the political parties to resolve issues of governance through a collaborative effort. So far the response has not been very encouraging. When it comes to filling key constitutional offices through accord between the leaders of the ruling party and the opposition, the tendency to insist on one’s own favourite has led to an impasse on more than one occasion.

The agreement on caretakers was not easy, there was unnecessary haggling over the choice of the chief election commissioner (and the story may be repeated), and the selection of a boss for the National Accountability Bureau has been hanging fire for quite some time.

Unfortunately, the judiciary’s insistence on erasing the line between institutional independence and exclusive monopoly over power has not set a good example for the less creditworthy politicians.

A proper transition to democracy demands a break from the tendency of political authorities to rely on their own bureaucratic baggage, and their readiness to accept experts on merit regardless of their personal opinions and affiliations.

Efforts should be made to ensure that no office-holders can violate the principles, laws and regulations applicable to their duties. This will guarantee greater administrative efficiency and probity than rule through personal/party favourites.

All of this means that the founding of democratic conventions that should endure will demand a revamping of the system of governance. The patchwork here and there must lead to the consistent nursing of democratic norms.