Eroding democratic values

Published October 4, 2017

The controversial amendment in the election laws may have allowed Nawaz Sharif to retain the leadership of his party, but it has further dented democratic values. The government bulldozed the bill through, with a fractious opposition failing to block it despite its majority in the Senate.

Surely the government seemed to be in a big hurry to accord political legitimacy to the disgraced former prime minister who is facing indictment on a litany of corruption charges. Where the PML-N is concerned, he is back in the saddle running the ruling party in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling.

Indeed, Sharif’s re-crowning will help maintain a façade of unity within the party ranks and prevent the possibility of the leadership passing to the other branch of his family’s political dynasty. But can this also win him moral legitimacy? Just holding on to the party leadership will not clear him of the charges he is facing in a court of law.

The way the government railroaded the bill through parliament does not augur well for democracy.

Most worrying is that this person-specific amendment in the law and the manner in which it was railroaded has further eroded democratic norms. Now anyone condemned by a court of law can form and lead a political party. Ironically, a person barred from holding public office can still be kingmaker and continue to run the government through proxies.

Apparently, the reason behind this hasty passage of the amendment was to bring the courts under pressure. But the move may not work. Instead, it may trigger yet another round of legal battle as the amendment has already been challenged in the courts.

Undoubtedly, the military-led government of Pervez Musharraf used the law for its own ulterior motive of preventing Benazir Bhutto from leading the PPP. But, in this case, the objective of striking it down was certainly not to correct an unfair move; it was to benefit a disqualified leader.

It also exposes the absence of a democratic culture within our political parties that have increasingly become family fiefdoms and a tool for the protection of the interests of a few. Democracy draws its strength from the rule of law and not from defying it. Democracy can work effectively only if political parties are able to censure their leaders for their wrongdoings and not wait for the court to decide their fate.

But it is completely opposite in the case of Pakistan where those facing corruption charges continue to hold high office and are eulogised by their supporters. For instance, how can a man indicted for money laundering remain in charge of the country’s economy and finances? One can argue that Ishaq Dar has still not been convicted; one can even question the fairness of the trial. But would it not be better for him to step aside until he is cleared of the charges?

For sure, a tainted finance minister cannot fulfil his responsibilities effectively in running an economy that seems to be in free fall. Foreign exchange reserves are depleting at an alarming rate with falling remittances and declining exports. The record balance-of-payment deficit has made it almost inevitable that the government will return to the IMF. The debt burden is becoming untenable. It will be a serious problem for a finance minister under trial to negotiate with multilateral agencies. For months now, the finance ministry has been in a state of paralysis.

The government, which is preoccupied with the political rehabilitation of the former prime minister, is fast losing its governing space. The clash among institutions has made the situation extremely chaotic. The bizarre incident outside the accountability court on Monday during the appearance of the former prime minister is quite ominous. The controversy over the deployment of the Rangers reflects an anarchic situation.

It is, indeed, a serious issue that the interior minister did not know who called the Rangers. The situation turned weirder still when Ahsan Iqbal was stopped from entering the court premises. Surely the Rangers did not come there without orders from somewhere. His public outburst and remarks about a state within a state demonstrated his helplessness.

It is certainly not a good omen for the government. The incident reinforces the perception about the government’s shrinking governing space while it is focused more on defending the ousted prime minister and his family. It is not enough to shout from the rooftop about the ‘invisible hand’. It is the governance, stupid. We have already seen the establishment gaining greater space.

Nawaz Sharif has called for a grand national dialogue among political parties. One cannot disagree with the proposal. There is, indeed, a serious need for the main political parties to come to an agreement on some kind of framework to strengthen the democratic process. But Sharif’s call may have come too late and at a time when he has been disqualified for not being honest and is facing trial. That makes the other political parties suspicious of his intent. There is scepticism that it is all about him being bailed out of his plight.

Sharif had a great opportunity to strengthen the institutionalised democratic process over the last four years. Instead, he rendered parliament ineffective and weakened other civilian institutions thus allowing nonelected elements to expand their space. He established his personalised rule with the help of close family members. Even the cabinet seldom met and was virtually turned into a rubber stamp. His current confrontational approach towards the judiciary will not inspire other political parties to gather.

Surely there is a need for a charter of democracy or grand national dialogue to establish civilian supremacy and remove the existing imbalance of power that has allowed non-elected institutions to undermine elected civilian governments. But personalised power is not an alternative for civilian supremacy. Democracy is not limited to winning the electoral mandate, it also means implementing the rule of law and democratic accountability. One wishes that Nawaz Sharif understood this.

More importantly, there is a need for an economic charter among political parties to guarantee the continuity of economic policies irrespective of whichever party is in power. Perhaps, this will become possible after the elections.

The writer is an author and a journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2017



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