Why this conflict?

Published October 30, 2022
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

SOMETIMES we feel overwhelmed by the multifaceted conflicts in our society and wonder whether it is unique to us or if the situation is more or less the same in other countries and therefore there is no need to be unduly alarmed.

In some respects, Pakistan is not too different from many other countries with similar characteristics. We are a developing country which chose the path of democracy. Although, at times, we seem to have been tempted by the apparent simplicity and efficiency of autocratic governance, society in general has refused to accept a regimented state and keeps coming back to a democratic system of governance no matter how flawed such governance turns out to be.

We are a multicultural, multilingual state which opted for a federal system of governance with all its attendant challenges and complications compared to a unitary state. Although we did experiment with a unique kind of presidential system in the past in which the president was indirectly elected by an electoral college of 80,000 to 120,000 directly elected persons who also doubled as local government councillors, we ultimately settled for a parliamentary form of government which arguably demands greater political sophistication as the executive and legislature overlap in the legislatures.

We are a struggling developing country with unenviable economic and social development indicators. We have a high population growth rate and a low literacy rate. Pakistan has one of the largest youth populations, which is a great blessing and a huge challenge at the same time.

There are certain areas we need to focus on in order to minimise conflict in society.

These are not unique challenges as a large number of developing countries across continents face similar issues and respond to them with varying degrees of success.

All those countries, as well as developed ones, face various internal conflicts. There is tension between states and the centre even in countries like the United States and Australia. Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada, suffers from so much separatist sentiment that at one point it was on the brink of opting out of the federal state of Canada. Although the UK is not a federal state in the classical sense, it continues to face centrifugal tendencies in places like Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Next door, India has a much greater degree of cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity and faces multiple insurgencies driven by one sentiment or the other. And although America has a classical presidential system of governance and many in Pakistan envy the system as they think it ensures greater stability, the federal government there had to be repeatedly shut down in the past decade as the president and Congress could not agree on a budget. These countries were not always able to find non-violent ways to address these conflicts. The declaration of the result of the US presidential election in 2020 was accompanied by unprecedented violence and an assault on the Capitol.

One can, therefore, deduce that in traditional areas of democratic governance, centre-province relations, and in the practice of the parliamentary system, our conflicts and challenges are not so different from those that many other contemporary societies experience. We have done reasonably well in terms of responding to challenges in these areas in Pakistan. We have, for example, agreed on a consensus constitution. After initial setbacks, including the tragedy of separation of one half of the country, we have succeeded in strengthening our federalism through the 18th Constitutional Amendment and the seventh National Finance Commission Award. Our Council of Common Interests is also gradually evolving into an effective institution. We were able to agree on the Indus Water Apportionment Accord among the provinces, which India could not do for a long time with regard to its various river basins. We have also evolved a parliamentary form of governance which has some features of the presidential system as we empowered our prime minister to appoint as many minister-level special assistants outside parliament as required. He or she can also direct a ministry without necessarily going through the concerned minister.

Are there some unique drivers of conflict in Pakistan for which we need to innovate so that we can match the pace of development of comparable states? Apparently yes; there are a few aspects where we need to focus on in order to minimise the areas of conflict.

First, we need to strengthen our democracy by purging influences outside the ambit of the Constitution. In this context, the military’s repeated and candid declaration that they have now decided to stay absolutely clear of politics, as ordained by the Constitution, is a very welcome development. Interference of the establishment, both real and perceived, had been a major reason for stalled progress on the evolution of democracy in Pakistan. Pakistan may not be unique in this respect but we certainly are one of the rare ones. Countries like South Korea, Turkey and Indonesia were almost in the same league as us not long ago but they have made considerable progress especially South Korea — and, in each case, it has paid rich dividends. Despite our security challenges, we can make substantive progress on our democracy project by resolving civil-military conflicts. The current conflictual state of relations in our polity is primarily the result of accumulated mistakes committed in this respect over the last many decades.

Our religious identity and our status as an Islamic Republic is another unique feature of our state. Religion, a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan, needs to be handled very responsibly. Only state institutions should have the power to interpret religious matters affecting public life. There should be zero tolerance for unauthorised religious groups making declarations about someone’s faith or propagating calls for jihad against any country or entity.

Serious stock-taking about the way we have managed our unique religious status and civil-military relations and putting greater focus on reforms in these areas, coupled with much greater emphasis on the economy, will substantively contribute to the resolution of conflicts in our society.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
president@pildat.org
Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2022

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