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The real challenge

January 03, 2013


THE most critical challenge Pakistan faces in 2013 is the test of the 65-year-old Pakistani nation’s capacity to ensure a credible general election and a normal transfer of authority to the parties/coalitions commanding majorities in the national and provincial legislatures.

That a transfer of power should take place this year is not in doubt; what needs to be guaranteed is that authority will be passed to those who win the polls. This because two possible developments that could thwart or disrupt the electoral process are being openly discussed among political observers and commentators.

The first scenario runs like this: the law and order situation continues to worsen and the people become more restless because of electricity/gas/water shortages and other economic difficulties and the caretaker prime minister petitions the Supreme Court to order the postponement of elections and sanction the creation of a Bangladeshi-type interim regime, and the court obliges him. Result: no election in 2013.

This theory has no legs to stand on. It is not impossible that the caretaker prime minister may come under pressure from powerful, anti-democratic forces, whose advice in favour of deferment of elections may not be based on a fair assessment of the situation on the ground. In fact they may not bother the interim head of government. There are quite a few glorified touts that have made public interest litigation a farce. One of them or any citizen could be persuaded to seek the judiciary’s intervention.

But the plot runs aground there.

Regardless of what the critics of the direction judicial activism has taken may say the judiciary is unlikely to fall into the anti-democratic forces’ trap. The superior courts may have now and then transcended their jurisdiction to take the institutions of state to task but they cannot deprive the people of their most fundamental right to choose their rulers. Whether they choose good rulers or bad ones is nobody’s business so long as elections are held in accordance with the law.

It is wrong to seek the judiciary’s intervention in a political matter that patently lies outside its jurisdiction. Besides, no court will be able in the foreseeable future to renege on the judiciary’s commitment to resist any extra-democratic dispensation, be it a military rule of Pakistani brand or the Bangladeshi model, both total failures.

The other scenario is that the militant organisations that have finally proclaimed their resolve to destroy Pakistan’s democratic experiment, and decimate all political elements committed to its continuance, will create a law and order crisis of so great a magnitude that elections will not be possible at all.

This threat cannot be taken lightly. An increase in violent attacks on state institutions, security personnel and individuals suspected of adherence to democracy, from the assassination of Bashir Bilour to the execution of 21 Levies near Peshawar, has already been recorded. Such incidents are likely to increase until election day and may continue even afterwards.

No effort to go ahead with the democratic agenda in these circumstances will bear fruit without a broad consensus on the need to hold elections this year. These elections are necessary to complete the task of realising Pakistan’s destiny as a modern democratic state. Each time this process has been disrupted the state and the people both have suffered grievous harm. Now Pakistan is much too weak to afford a relapse into authoritarianism.

A departure from the democratic system at the present moment in time will be a much bigger disaster than was the case earlier on because today a more conscious citizenry, a largely free media and an assertive judiciary promise democratic governance a much better environment for its sustenance and defence than it ever had.

Today it is possible to say that whichever party/coalition comes on top after the polls, it will not be able to do what it may like however corrupt it may be. If the system is undermined at this stage the state will be thrown back many decades and the process of democratisation will have to be started from scratch.

The weaknesses of democracy are known, not only in Pakistan or South Asia and the Muslim world, but also in countries where this system has taken root. But the alternative to even an imperfect democracy will be worse because neither military despotism nor a theocracy can meet the demands of the multi-national federation that Pakistan is and it can only survive as such.

This formulation must be endorsed by all the parties that are planning to take part in the coming elections. Any party that does not subscribe to democratic ideals has no moral right to demand seats in legislatures. A natural corollary is that the political parties excluded from the hit list announced by the militants should have the decency to declare their faith in democracy. If they remain silent over the killing of leaders and workers of parties targeted by militants or do no more than offer fateha for the deceased, they will invite indictment for hypocrisy.

The militants’ threat can be met if it is realised that while the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is formally responsible for holding free and fair elections this task is also the responsibility of political parties and the people at large. Massive public participation in polling alone can deter the extremists from carrying out their nefarious designs.

The ECP also will do well to repose more trust in the people than in any state institution. One was not surprised by the army chief’s assurance of help in the election process; what did surprise many was the request the chief election commissioner made to him.

The army, like any other state institution, is not required to guarantee fair elections; it is only expected to avoid interfering in the electoral process. The army’s help can be sought for maintaining order, and that too from a distance. The presence of any troops/Rangers inside polling stations cannot be permitted as it will vitiate freedom of voting. As for security needs, the armed forces are always available to the civil authorities, including the ECP.

It is also necessary perhaps to moderate official and public expectations from the coming elections. The objective of a fair poll should be pursued with realistic assumptions. The days of an ideal election are still far away and one should aim no higher than a reasonably fair electoral contest because it is not possible to guarantee a level playing ground to candidates with modest resources. Likewise, those elected this time again are unlikely to match public expectations of competence and integrity, because the condition for that, namely a social revolution, is yet to be met.

Tailpiece: Seen in Karachi last week on a white-washed wall near the stadium was a several yards long declaration: “Hamein manzil nahin rahnuma chahiye (sirf) Altaf”. It could be read in two ways: i) We don’t care where we are going, we only need a pathfinder, says Altaf; ii)

We do not need a destination/goal, we need a leader, only Altaf. So much for democracy!