Democracy, continuity, change

Published March 10, 2022
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

AFTER almost four years in power, Islamabad’s ‘hybrid’ set-up seems to be facing its greatest threat yet, with a no-confidence motion being filed against it in the National Assembly Secretariat by the joint opposition on Tuesday.

The PPP’s Awami March, the PML-Q’s sudden falling out with the PTI, and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s close friend Aleem Khan (who brought many ‘electables’ to the PTI) joining hands with a disgruntled Jehangir Tareen have quickly followed the saga of the ISI chief’s appointment last year. This was the first tear on the page the PTI-led government shared with the establishment since coming to power in 2018.

What does this say about the state of our constitutional democracy over the past few years? Has parliament been functioning as per democratic norms? What about the Constitution and the Political Parties Act? Has there been any interference? Has the establishment been as neutral as is being claimed in the current scenario? Is the people’s mandate being respected? And are key institutions functioning as per their constitutional role? Or, is it only faces that have changed while the system remains as rigged as ever?

With illegal restrictions on rallies and political meetings having been imposed by the state on all types of groups, violating the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, movement, association and speech, it becomes a matter of suspicion when a group or political party is not stopped from protesting. Such was the case when meticulous rallies by the PTI became a trend prior to the 2013 election. This was the time when a lot of career politicians began changing their political allegiances, while the other parties accused them of horse-trading. Post 2018, a lot of the groups included the same faces that were once part of Gen Musharraf’s dictatorial set-up when he unconstitutionally grabbed power from a democratically elected Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

Should we get ready to celebrate an improved system or simply a change of faces?

In the current situation, the PPP’s Awami March has been largely successful in reaching Islamabad, with PPP loyalists motivating some former PPP stalwarts who had joined the PTI to go back to the PPP. The question being asked is whether the PPP and PML-N finally have the blessing of the establishment to dethrone Imran Khan, while the conversation has moved to who will be the candidates for prime minister and chief minister of Punjab. Also suspect is the conspicuous absence of the PML-N from public rallies, with many pointing to a reported visit of the army chief to London in the past month, and how, out of nowhere, Shehbaz Sharif is being proposed by opposition political parties as their joint candidate, while Imran Khan is rushing to Lahore and Karachi to convince government allies like the MQM and disgruntled PTI members to stay.

Related: Rattled PM scrambles to find support

There are other doubts. For instance, how will the opposition be successful in the no-confidence vote it when it did not have enough numbers for the State Bank bill or Senate chairperson vote? In fact, the joint effort has not been enough to stop the government from passing several laws in parliament in the past four years. Meanwhile, ordinances have become routine, but the opposition has not made an effort to oppose the practice as per Article 89 of the Constitution.

In trying to make sense of the current situation, many also ask why those who are flexible with their political loyalties have now given their support to the opposition.

What does all this say about the state of our democracy, about the current parliamentary system, about the strength of internal democracy in political parties, and about discontented political workers willing to change their loyalties?

Questions are also being asked about the neutrality of the establishment. What does such neutrality entail? Is it when they make an exception by not interfering? Is it when they stop favouring a government they previously supported? Or are they following the voice of the people that vote in the elections? Is it the signalling of discontent that guides the choice of the powers that be? These are critical questions that we must ask before moving to revel in any change of regime or celebrating the democratic voice of the people.

If the impending change is about a change of face while the rotten system remains just as it is, should we celebrate? Or is it an admission by those who are said to back the government that their project has been unsuccessful? Will this mean that irregularities in the last election will be investigated? Will the next elections be fair and free from interference? Will pre-poll rigging stop in an environment where the media is forced to take sides, where critics are silenced and laws are abused, where people are intimidated and politicians are disappeared as happened in the Balochistan Assembly?

Constitutional moves must not be the last resort of political parties that rendered parliament ineffective in the past government. Prime Minister Imran Khan barely showed up at parliamentary sessions, refused to engage with the opposition, and his party cried foul when the opposition delayed any bill in the House. Parliament witnessed petty sloganeering and personal attacks rather than being the floor where issues of national importance such as inflation, unemployment, education, health, displacement, terrorism, forced evictions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing and torture were debated.

Institutions and government departments that were underperforming were not effectively made accountable, and oversight of existing legislation was dismal.

So if the marches and rallies, speeches and resolutions, and threats and consolations lead to any change, how deeply will all this be felt in the system itself? Will political parties make a ‘deal’ with the people where they strike a balance between pragmatism and idealism, where some efforts to improve governance are made? Will the people of Pakistan finally be the kingmakers?

Are the winds blowing in the capital those of change, or are we witnessing a mere game of musical chairs?

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2022

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