Blow to democracy

Published August 30, 2014
Rangers stand guard as they secure what is called the "Red zone". — Photo by Reuters
Rangers stand guard as they secure what is called the "Red zone". — Photo by Reuters

EVENTS seemingly had degenerated into a dirge for democracy, but in a political crisis that is as confounding as it is severe, the events of Thursday night were quickly overtaken by developments on Friday.

On Thursday, it had appeared that a political crisis in which certain institutional forces had long stayed on in the shadows had reached a predictable denouement with the army leadership once again taking centre stage — a move ostensibly authorised by the PML-N government under duress.

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But then yesterday an equally confounding — though perhaps not entirely unpredictable — blame game began between politicians, with the government and its political opponents both suggesting that it was the other camp that had dragged the military centre stage.

Meanwhile, the army leadership happily lapped up the attention and focus, with statements attributed to the military leadership suggesting that it was only doing what had been asked of it by the political leadership of the country and was playing as neutral a role as possible.

In the continuing flux that has become national politics in recent weeks, there are certain things that are already obvious.

For one, the army has — whether because of serendipity or by design — already re-established for itself a position of political pre-eminence that the transition to democracy was supposed to have consigned to history.

Whatever the army leadership may claim through its selective statements, it is simply the case that it has once again assumed the role of referee, umpire or final arbiter over the political process by steadfastly refusing to choose sides — when one side clearly had the law and Constitution in its favour and the other side was agitating for the kind of politics and system that the country had collectively rejected in recent years.

That so-called neutrality of the army leadership involved essentially saying that the democratic, parliamentary, legal and constitutional legitimacy of an elected government was at par with the rabble-rousing skills of Tahirul Qadri and near-demagoguery of Imran Khan.

It should not have been this way — but the fact that events have come to such a pass indicate how against the democratic spirit and unwilling to accede to civilian control certain unelected, powerful institutions of the state are.

Unhappily, there are many failings among the democrats too.

Rewind to Thursday when the country had seemingly regressed several decades in its political evolution.

To involve the army chief as mediator in a national political crisis was capitulation of the highest order — and for that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have to shoulder a significant burden of the blame.

Consider that when the transition to democracy began with the February 2008 elections and gained momentum with the ouster of then-president Pervez Musharraf in August 2008, the country had embarked on the most tentative of journeys towards the democratic idyll.

Five years on, in May 2013, after several major crises, a corner had seemingly been turned — the country had its first ever peaceful, on-schedule, democratic transition of power between one elected government and the next.

At that point, a heavy burden sat on the shoulders of Prime Minister Sharif: he was the chief custodian of the democratic process for the next five years.

The problem was that Mr Sharif quickly and unprovoked made several choices that put great strain on the democratic transition — a strain that Mr Sharif then seemed incapable of dealing with or mitigating. The hastiness of Mr Sharif combined with his inability to stay in control of events helped bring events to the present pass.

The alternative was not to do nothing at all.

Surely though given a five-year old democratic transition and a five-year term ahead of him, Mr Sharif could have picked his priorities and battles differently.

Even during the build-up to the present crisis, a prime minister who seemed content to lead from behind added to the perception of a threat to the system — and almost certainly gave the prime minister’s opponents and anti-government protesters hope.

Now, yet again, the country is at a pass where confusion and clarity seemingly coexist. What is clear is that whatever democratic credentials Imran Khan and the PTI had and whatever credibility Tahirul Qadri and his supporters had have disappeared.

To so gleefully accept the direct involvement of the army in a political crisis, as Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have, is to destroy the last vestiges of democratic legitimacy and institutional good sense.

While the never-ending crisis appears to have some more time to run yet, because of the government’s inept handling of the affair the political domain will continue to feel the effects of the military’s role, whether as ‘facilitator’ or ‘arbiter’, for at least the foreseeable future.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2014

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