Herald exclusive: Pakistan’s experience with democracy

Critics of Pakistani democracy promote numerous unexploded myths and here is an attempt to bust a few of them
Published September 15, 2014

Pakistan’s experience with democracy

By Zafarullah Khan

Pakistanis have yearned for democracy for the last 68 years. Most of their struggles had been for the survival of democracy. They successfully reclaimed their right to be governed democratically by defeating four usurpers in uniform and by frustrating many more carefully orchestrated conspiracies. The risk of reversal is still there but the journey to realise democratic dreams continues.

The narrative of democracy in Pakistan reminds me of a childhood story, ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’. The elite view it as a share in the economic cake including loot and plunder. The poor regard it as an agency for patron-client relationship and then there is the mufassil and modern middle class that has read somewhere that democracy is about equality, inclusion, justice and rule of law — concerns deliberately avoided by the elite and the poor. Critics of Pakistani democracy promote numerous unexploded myths. On September 15, the world celebrates International Day of Democracy. To mark the occasion here is an attempt to bust a few myths.

Myth 1 — Presidential system is more suitable than the messy parliamentary architecture

Reality: Pakistan has spent more time under highly centralised presidential dispensations at the cost of its federal diversity. The odd experience of One Unit (1955-1970) cost the nation its federal unity. The Dominion status after Independence imported the centralised federal system embedded in the Indian Act of 1935. Pakistan has had pure parliamentary governance for only 34 per cent of its national life, spanning 24,488 days till August 31, 2014. Therefore, denial of federal-parliamentary democracy is the real problem.

Myth 2 — The Constitution does not address core critical issues and does not offer bread and butter

Reality: Pakistan has experienced high constitutional mortality. The single product – Pakistan – had been operated through multiple user manuals — the Constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 and a series of Provisional Constitutional and Legal Framework Orders. Resultantly, the product has crashed on many occasions. Lesson: please stick to the compatible manual that is nothing but federal-parliamentary democracy.

Myth 3 — The Peoples’ part of the Constitution – fundamental rights and the Principles of Policy (Article 8-40) – has never been implemented

Reality: Whenever there is martial law, fundamental rights are suspended. The dictators do get a set of obedient judges through Provisional Constitutional Orders and puppet parliaments like the Majlis-e-Shura. But we, the people, don’t even remain citizens as our rights are suspended. The total life of the Constitution of 1973 is 14,992 days (41 years). Practically it has been operational for only less than 20 per cent at different stages. So who actually denied our rights? In terms of the resources to realise these rights, the weak civilian governments only had a pastry to share with the 200 million whereas the big cake was baked only for the garrison state.

So what is the way out? Address the civil-military disequilibrium and negotiate peace with neighbours. Pakistanis also need a compulsory vaccine of ‘democratic civic education’ and a series of crash courses in democracy, constitutionalism, due process and democratic conflict resolution to transform our heated political culture into a delivering democracy. Only then will we be out of the thick woods and be able to see the real dawn of democracy that cares and caters to the socio-economic needs of its citizens.

Zafarullah Khan is Islamabad based civic educator/researcher with interest in democratic development and federalism