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Pakistan: a consolidated democracy?
September 26, 2020 - 23:19
Intervention at a conference arranged by South Asia Democratic Forum on the occasion of the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review of “Pakistan”, Palais des Nations, Geneva, October 30, 2012.
Stig Toft Madsen
Senior Research Fellow
NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
This intervention will cover the period from the return of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 till now. I am speaking as a person who has worked as a sociologist and anthropologist mainly with India, but who has kept an interest in Pakistan as well. For lack of time I have not been able to study the UN reports (e.g. A/HRC/WG.6/14/PAK/1) presented elsewhere today.
Pakistani politics has always had periods of military rule and democratic rule alternating in rather long cycles. Therefore, the return to democracy in 2008 would not necessarily mean the institutionalization of democracy in Pakistan once and for all. But at that time there was a hope that this time around Pakistanis had finally realized the benefits that democracy could bring, that they had learnt to recognize the problems of military rule, that they had become better informed by the electronic media, that they had come to desire the rule of law as, indeed, it appeared at the time from the wide support given to the dismissed Chief Justice Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary and the Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan and, if nothing else, that middle class Pakistanis had amassed sufficient property that they would support democracy to secure political stability.
In fact, the elections held in 2008 were technically fair confirming that the Election Commission is one functioning institution in Pakistan. After the elections, President Musharraf made a rather dignified exit. For a time, the two main political parties stood together in their common opposition to military rule. I remember TV-footage of political leaders joking among themselves and with assembled journalists, and exchanging Urdu couplets in those golden days. But as Shaheryar Azhar reminded his readers, “great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes”.
What does a democratic transition entail? When does a transition get consolidated? When is it completed? According to an article by Schedler
“The consolidation of democracy concludes when democratic actors manage to establish reasonable certainty about the continuity of the new democratic regime.… While the task of transition is to push open the window of uncertainty and create opportunities for democratic change, the challenge of consolidation is to close the window of uncertainty and preclude possibilities of authoritarian regression. Transitions create hopes of democratic change, processes of consolidation confidence into democratic stability” (Schedler 2001).
Transitions, he also argued, may be gradual and even, or they may contain a few defining moments or focal events, or they may be more erratic and fuzzy with many high and lows.
How does Pakistan look in this perspective? Elections put democracy back on the rails in February 2008. That marks a shift, but not a full shift. There was a controlled or guided democracy even under Musharraf with parties and elections, but without the two main civilian leaders in the country, i.e. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It was the return of these two persons to take part in the elections that marked the beginning of the transition.
The reinstatement of Iftikar Mhd. Chaudhary as Chief Justice in March 2009 was a further focal point. Another was the transfer of power from the office of the President to the office of the Prime Minister by the 18th Amendment in 2010. As regards the troubled frontier regions, one may note that for the first time ever political parties have been allowed to operate there. Moreover, one should note that the present regime is now completing its 5-year period in office. That is no mean feat considering that no elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its full term! Do these events add up to a consolidation of democracy in Pakistan? I would say “no”, they do not create full confidence in democratic stability.
Why not? For a start, there has been no systematic reform of the military which would include reducing the economic privileges that officers enjoy, reworking its “doctrines” to further de-escalation rather than escalation in Pakistan’s relation with its neighbours, and breaking the close links with the militant organizations that the military has cultivated.
The attack on Mumbai, it should be remembered, took place not under Musharraf, but in November 2008 after the return of democracy. Investigations have testified to the continued links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was behind the attack, and the Pakistani military, but the LeT still operates more or less as it has done before.
It is true, on the other hand, that the Pakistani military did stage a major counter-offensive against the Islamic militants in Swat. The operation was relatively successful, but the attack on the pro-schooling activist Malala Yusufzai shows that the same militants are still around. Indeed, militias of various hues have grown stronger in many parts of the country.
The transition, therefore, involves not only the political parties and the military, but also the militants, whose capacity to intimidate and harm, and to set the agenda, and to rule in many areas and across many institutions precludes the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan and even in parts of Afghanistan.
How much of a threat are the Islamic militants? In early 2009, a leading human rights activist, IA Rehman, known for his long work for human right in Pakistan, was willing to give up FATA and PATA (the federally and provincially administered tribal areas), if not the whole of the NWFP. He wrote:
“The sole option will be to buy a truce by separating the Shariah lobby from the terrorists and creating FATA and PATA as a Shariah zone, which may quickly encompass the Frontier province. The question then will be whether Pakistan can contain the pro-Shariah forces within the Frontier region… In such an eventuality, the hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants”. (Rehman 2009).
Pakistan did not break up, but Rehman’s willingness to consider dividing the country stands as a sad testimony to the despair at that time. Remember also that the Government of Pakistan actually did sign an agreement with the militants to turn Swat into a Sharia zone (Shah 2009).
But it was to get worse. The breaking point to me and, I suspect, to many others, was the murder in January 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab. It marked a new low even by Pakistani standards because the murder was done by his own bodyguard, because the other bodyguards did nothing effectively to stop him, because the assassin was affiliated to the ostensibly moderate Barelwi-branch of Islam, because the bodyguard was lionized by members of the legal community otherwise supposed to be a relatively enlightened class, and because many clerics boycotted Taseer’s funeral. The bodyguard killed Taseer because of his support to Asia Noreen Bibi, the poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy about whom we will probably hear more today. This was followed in March by the murder of another Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs. These murders did not occur to further the return of military rule. They occurred for religious reasons. They were the harbingers of a possible transition to theocratic rule which already affects not only Christians: Ahmadiyas, Ismailis, Hindus, Shias, and Barelwis as well as Jews, Americans, Danes and many others, including schoolgirls, are among the legitimate targets.
To deal with this threat to democratic consolidation and to human rights requires an efficient state, and here lies another fault-line. The conflict between the legislative and the judiciary has been carried over from Musharraf’s time, most obviously in the conflict between President Zardari and the Chief Justice who wants to re-open old corruption cases with roots in Switzerland against Zardari. These old cases have been zealously pursued by the judiciary in a manner that has made an ex-member of the Supreme Court of India chastise his Pakistani colleagues for not exercising judiciary restraint (Katju 2012).
In Pakistan itself, the unofficial Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2011 report that
“While this expanded role gained the SC immense popularity, it also raised many questions regarding the impact of frequent and extensive invocation of suo motu powers on the courts’ normal work, the difficulties in avoiding the side effects of selective justice, and the consequences of the executive-judiciary or parliament-judiciary confrontation.” (Taqi 2012)
What emerges is the image of a Chief Justice and a Supreme Court overreaching their allotted space within the division of powers, whether for reasons good or bad.
Let me add to this that the fourth pillar of power has also not been as efficient in furthering democratic consolidation as one could hope for. Reasoned political debate is not absent in the Pakistani press. Since I come from Norden, I will take the opportunity to draw your attention to a book written by a Pakistani living in Sweden, i.e. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed about the period around 1947. This book has been meticulously and reasonably debated in both the Pakistani and Indian press. One may also come across provocative and humorous interventions in the Pakistani press, such as Ziauddin Sardar’s little article “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, and the daring satire/desperate sarcasm in the online magazine Viewpoint. However,Pakistani political debate is often an exercise in mud-slinging and venom-spitting which belies any hope that the Pakistani obsession of securing a world without defamation of the Prophet will limit other forms defamation.
Similar unprofessional conduct extends into “the fifth pillar” of the state, i.e. academia, where most recently the journal Nature has written about “predatory journals” where publications-hungry academics pay large sums to be published in sham journals emerging from especially Pakistan, India and Nigeria (Beall 2012). To round off this lament let me mention also the rot in Pakistani sports exemplified by the two Pakistanis who were jailed in the UK and banned from cricket for a period for fixing a cricket match at the Lords in London – only to reappear later as TV commentators in Pakistan (Dawn.com 2012).
I do not think I need to belabour the point any more. What I have been saying is that while a democratic transition from a largely military regime to a largely civilian regime has occurred, there has been little in the way of democratic consolidation. Pervez Musharraf in 2004 said he wanted “enlightened moderation”, but unenlightened extremism is what the Pakistanis still get as the country moves from Crisis to Crisis, in the process earning a bad name for democracy. I have been able to give you only a limited number of examples of this. However, they are no mere incidents. They form a coherent pattern.
(Slightly revised 6 November 2012)
Ahmed, Ishtiaq, 2012, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford University Press.
Azhar, Shaheryar “The Way Forward”, Daily Times, 27 February 2008, www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C02%5C27%5Cstory_27-2-2008_pg3_6
Beall, Jeffrey, “Predatory publishers are corrupting open access” Nature 489: 179, 13 September 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/predatory-publishers-are-corrupting-open-access-1.11385
Dawn.com, “Butt and Amir on TV as pundits during World T20”, 18 September 2012, http://dawn.com/2012/09/18/salman-butt-mohammad-amir-tv-experts/
Feldman, Herbert, 1972, From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan 1962-1969, London.
Katju, Markandey, “Pakistan’s Supreme Court has gone overboard”, The Hindu, opinion, 21 June 2012, www.thehindu.com/opinion/article3553558.ece?homepage=true
Noorani, AG, “A right to insult”, Frontline, 2 November 2012, pp. 80-86.
Rehman, IA, 2009, “Shariah Zone: One Solution for Pakistan?” Dawn.com, 12 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/142170
Schedler, A, “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, Democratization, 8:4, 1-22, 2001.
Shah, Waseem Ahmad, 2009, Pak govt signs Malakand sharia deal”, Dawn.com, 16 February, http://archives.dawn.com/archives/124111
Taseer, Shehrbano, “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan”, Newsweek, October 29, 2012, pp. 30-35.
Sardar, Ziauddin, “Why Are Muslims So Boring?”, Emel, November-December 2004, www.emel.com/article?id=9&a_id=1830
Sulehria, Farooq, “Pakistan awaiting the clerical tsunami: Pervez Hoodbhoy”. Viewpoint, online issue 125, November 2, 2012, www.viewpointonline.net/pakistan-awaiting-the-clerical-tsunami-pervez-hoodbhoy.html
Taqi, Mohammad, “Judging the Judges”, View from Pakistan”, Outlook India, 19 April 2012, www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280620