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A new charter

July 19, 2018


THE Charter of Democracy was a blueprint for returning Pakistan to a constitutional, democratic, rule-of-law government; steering national institutions back towards their core and separate roles as defined in the Constitution; and making the state more responsive to the social and economic needs of the people and their security concerns. Negotiated between what were then the two largest political parties in terms of popular support and signed by two two-term prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, it was a landmark political achievement. Now Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has called for a new and revised charter created by consensus among all democratic forces in the country to address the new challenges to the democratic and constitutional order in Pakistan and threats to the rights, peace and security of the people. Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s suggestion is welcome and ought to be considered by all mainstream political forces in the country.

The original charter attempted to put a constitutional- and rights-based discourse at the centre of national politics after the bitter political experience of the 1990s followed by the dictatorship of Gen Pervez Musharraf. While its recommendations are still widely applicable today, and many remain partially or wholly unimplemented, a new document could focus on updated proposals to address persistent problems and focus on the more current security and economic challenges that have become apparent over the past decade. From the threat of terrorism, militancy and extremism to a familiar but perhaps much bigger economic crisis on the horizon, there are challenges apparent today that did not loom as large in 2006. Similarly, unlike the alternating and abridged governments of the 1990s, the past decade of elected dispensations has delivered historic achievements in successive parliaments that have completed their terms and the peaceful transfer of power. There have also been important changes to the structure of the state and to governance following the sweeping reforms of the 18th Amendment supported by a firm and continuing national political consensus.

A new charter of democracy, then, could seek to consolidate the constitutional gains made over the past decade while addressing new national challenges that have emerged over the past decade. Undeniably, the changed political environment and dynamics of the country could make a fresh political consensus possible. The original charter perhaps became possible because Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif had finally recognised that when democratic forces fight among themselves, it is anti-democratic forces that ultimately benefit. But times have moved on, and today, there are new political forces in the country, not least the PTI. The upcoming general election is already mired in controversy. Yet, the PTI, PPP and PML-N have been able to find consensus on electoral reforms, and parliament was able to approve historic Fata reforms, for example. Consensus on the core issues of democracy, fair play, security and economic stability may be possible.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2018