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Democratic destiny

October 12, 2017

EIGHTEEN years ago today, the country was plunged into yet another disastrous experiment against the constitutional, democratic order. Pervez Musharraf became the second army chief to violate his oath to the 1973 Constitution and the fourth overall to illegally rule this country. Like the first three spells of military dictatorship, the fourth also proved disastrous — harming the country and institutions alike. The dark final days of Gen Musharraf’s rule some 10 years ago underlined the abiding problem of military rule; built on a negation of the people’s right to choose their own leaders, it will inevitably be rejected by the public itself. No amount of window dressing or self-serving arguments will change the basic reality that military rule is incompatible with the democratic principles on which this country was founded, the Constitution and the political ethos of the Pakistani people. This country’s destiny was and will remain democratic.

Undeniably, however, the democratic order stands significantly weakened today. A historic milestone, a third consecutive on-schedule election is within touching distance, but a slow-burning political crisis over the past 18 months has plunged the entire system into a state of uncertainty. At the outset of the country’s latest transition to democracy, it had been apparent that while democratic continuity is essential, the democratic project needed meaningful, sustained institutional strengthening. Amending the Constitution to remove dictatorial insertions against the spirit of democracy was a key step, but democratic institutions have been allowed to atrophy. The national clamour for accountability, for example, represents a real and just demand, and there is no legitimate reason why the country does not have stronger accountability in all institutions. Had the issue been addressed in a meaningful manner by the country’s elected representatives, the current political crisis would arguably have not been as severe. Trust in democratic institutions weakens when democrats are seen as trying to manipulate the rule of law to their advantage.

Of course, there is another side to the reality of weak democratic institutions. The democratic order in the country is only perceived as vulnerable to being overthrown because there are institutions that appear to follow their own rules and interests. Ultimately, Gen Musharraf was able to take over because a decision was made that the Constitution is, in fact, not supreme and that the intervention of certain institutions was needed to allegedly save the country from disaster. As long as that mindset exists, there will always be a threat to the democratic order in the country. In his memoir, In the Line of Fire, Gen Musharraf candidly admits that on the day after the coup, he had no idea about how to proceed or even what needed to be done. Therein lies a vital lesson: think about tomorrow before acting today; it will always be clear that democracy is the only path ahead.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017