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Still some way to go: Implementing the charter

March 31, 2013

AS the PPP and PML-N prepare to go into a campaign in which one or the other is viewed as likely to emerge as the lead coalition partner in the next government, it is a good time to look back and see what the two parties — now almost surely to sit on opposite sides of the aisle in parliament — agreed to in 2006 in the Charter of Democracy. A product of a different era, when a military dictator stood astride Pakistan thinking he was a colossus and Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were condemned to exile, the Charter of Democracy still has relevance today. Not so much for ditching the idea of a constitutional court, an idea floated in an era when the unconstitutional was sanctified as constitutional by a pliant judiciary, but for all that remains to be done.

Admittedly, from cleaning up the constitution a great deal to devolving power to the provinces and from establishing an independent election commission to handing over the leadership of the public accounts committees in the assemblies to the opposition, much has been achieved. Of the achievements still to materialise, however, the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission is a crucial lapse. As the Asghar Khan/Mehrangate case in the Supreme Court and the earlier attempt by the PPP to revisit the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto under judicial sanction have shown, many wounds have yet to heal, and many threats have yet to be confronted. The charter itself flags some of those continuing threats: “Terrorism and militancy are by-products of military dictatorship, negation of democracy, are strongly condemned, and will be vigorously confronted.” Far from confronting the threat, the PML-N in particular but also the PPP have either courted the extremist vote or cowered before the militant threat.

There is also another complex challenge: the document states, “The ISI, MI and other security agencies shall be accountable...”. Over the past five years, civil-military relations have not really been reset, there being a persistent sense that circumstances and choices by the army itself were by and large keeping the military out of overt and frequent interference in politics, while the major national security and foreign policy issues were still very much under army control. Righting the very lopsided civil-military imbalance is an essential priority for Pakistan’s democratic future and something the PPP and PML-N can surely find common ground on in the next parliament.