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A democratic process in Pakistan: Abdullah Zaidi

May 26, 2012

Guest post by ABDULLAH ZAIDI

Pakistan’s National Assembly

In a way, the story of Pakistan is the story of a centralised state manipulating the provinces. It is also the story of an overgrown and overfed military destabilising all political forces that posed a challenge to its narrative. It is also the story of institutions wrestling for their due and undue share of power. Finally, it is the story of a powerful state and a weak society. The one thing that is common to all of these dynamics is the power struggle between elected and unelected institutions.

After return to civilian rule in 2008, the country has seen several developments that have somewhat changed these dynamics.

Firstly, the devolution plan envisaged under the 18th Amendment and equitable distributions of resources between provinces through the 7th National Finance Commission Award have helped rewrite the centre-province equation. The NFC Award resulted in provinces getting greater financial compared to the federal government for the first time in history. According to the Award the centre’s share reduced to 47.5% following 2010-11 and the share of provinces increased to 52.5%. On the other hand the abolition of the Concurrent List, under the 18th Amendment, led to devolution 47 subjects and 18 federal ministries to the provinces. Despite bottlenecks and hurdles these moves will eventually help in attaining the character of a federation for the state. It is very important to understand the effect of centre-province relationship on democratic dispensation in the country. The several economic crises emerging immediately after the partition required serious revenue generation. The central government arm-twisted the provinces into giving up their revenues mainly through the bureaucracy due to the absence of any real political presence at the provincial/local level. This revenue was then directed towards defence procurement due to immediate belligerence with India. In stark contrast from today, defence with civil bureaucracy constituted to around three-quarters of the central government’s revenue budget during the first decade after independence. After the first Constitution was promulgated in 1956 and elections were scheduled for 1959, the bureaucracy and military, fearing an alliance between the regional political forces established martial law thereby nullifying any threats to their power and privilege.

The second dimension which has seen some important change is the role of institutions in the country. The incumbent government created an enabling environment where the legislature can adequately perform its role. For the first time the government allowed the Leader of Opposition to Chair the all-important Public Accounts Committee. As a result of the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendment, the Chief Election Commissioner, Judges to the superior courts and caretaker Prime Minister will be appointed by the parliament through mechanisms which involve a mandatory consensus between Government and Opposition thus increasing its power manifolds. The parliament, for its part, has sought to exert its authority and significantly improved its performance. Not only did the parliament unanimously pass three Constitutional Amendments, the rate of legislation in the first three years of the 13th National Assembly (2008-2011) has shown an increase of 100% compared to the 12th (2003-2007). Finally, after the NATO attack which killed Pakistani troops in November 2011 the parliament was asked to draw the rules of engagement with the US and NATO. The unanimous passage of the 14-recommendations on foreign policy by the Parliamentary Committee is a watershed in the parliamentary history and the civil-military equation. It appears that the military has also ceded some space somewhere. Most of these developments related to the parliament may be symbolic in nature but they have at the very least established a relevance of the legislature in the state.

Another institution which is increasingly clamouring for its (un)due share of power is the superior judiciary of Pakistan. The galvanised judiciary of Pakistan under the leadership of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has emerged as a powerful player in the years following 2007. While some of its actions can be criticised for their lack of restraint, there are reasons why the judiciary will not collude with the military against the political forces, as some have hinted. Although in the past the judiciary has facilitated the military establishment, the incumbent judiciary’s actions have given no evidence of any such convergence. Instead, the judiciary has recently picked up some cases (Asghar Khan’s case being one example) that have visibly perturbed the military leadership. Although, the decisions on these critical petitions are still pending it seems that the superior judiciary of Pakistan is not ready to play second-fiddle to anyone.

Another contribution, albeit unwittingly, of the incumbent government to democracy ironically comes from its mis-governance. Previously the arrogant state was feared by a weak society. The apparent lack of good governance and charges of corruption have now led to civilians treating the state as mortal and accountable to it. In this regard the mass media, telecom and the new media have not only connected citizens but also empowered them to play their role as a check on government’s excesses. Barring a few misadventures the government has also refrained from trying to muzzle dissent which is a manifestation of its policy of reconciliation. In a welcome departure from the past there is not a single political prisoner in the country.

Despite the positives noted above there are some significant places which saw no or little improvement in the recent years. This includes the political parties in Pakistan which largely remain in the same pitiful state. Political parties are the first line of defence as far as threats to democratic dispensation are concerned. It should be kept in mind that both Bhutto’s and Benazir’s regime fell because they could not challenge the onslaught using their party which was numbed into inactivity. Neither were these parties organised enough to become a check on the party leader if she turned to authoritarian measures. Most political parties in Pakistan are undemocratic and unorganised and no membership databases are maintained. Furthermore, local and district tiers are only activated during election time. The rampant monetisation of politics through party-less local government elections has rendered parties weak by encouraging local notables which only formed horizontal ties. Politicians, till today, are occupied with recovering their election campaign costs after they are elected. This leads to the question of state funding for political parties in Pakistan. It is important that some reform on these lines is brought as it will take away the pressure on party leaders to appease different groups and also discourage corrupt practices. The reform in political parties will be a major step towards further consolidating democracy in Pakistan.

It seems that political forces have pushed their agenda ahead. Institutions such as the judiciary and legislature are gradually striking roots and the balance of power is shifting in favour of the provinces. Political parties, at the very least, have not showed any support unconstitutional measures and are trying to play by the rules. It will now depend upon the provinces to effectively use the legal power transferred to them and also resist the centre encroaching upon their mandate. The military for its part must understand that it cannot govern Pakistan effectively and that it must allow and even assist politicians to come to real power. In the end, all of this will not mean better governance or a booming economy but it is necessary that the democratic momentum generated by the incumbent regime should continue if Pakistan is to emerge as a modern state.

(Abdullah Zaidi is a writer and political commentator based in Islamabad.)

Previously on Pakistan in Kafila archives:

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