Democracy under seige

More and more learned voices continue to caution that we take a moment to consider our actions before we make them. Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a respected political and defense analyst writing in The Daily Times a stern warning about the threat to democracy from those who seek to circumvent the democratic process to make a political change.

Is democracy under siege in Pakistan? The answer is both yes and no. It is no if we take a textbook approach to politics. The standard argument is that state institutions are more important than the individuals who occupy key positions. These individuals come and go but the primacy of institutions should not be compromised. Current political challenges are being faced by some people who hold key positions in the government; they may be under siege, but not the political institutions or democracy.

The answer is yes if we focus on the operational dynamics of state institutions and processes. Institutions do not mean bricks, walls, furniture and files. When individuals interact with institutions or when institutions deal with each other, the folk occupying key positions matter. Their disposition and agenda, as well as how these change over time, influence institutional disposition and agenda. The survival and collapse of institutions depend on personal, group and corporate and professional interests of the key individuals in these institutions. It is not possible to de-link individuals from institutions and if the key position holders in an institution perceive themselves as being under siege from other institutions or power-players, the disposition of that institution lies affected.

Individuals and groups determine the fate of state institutions. Take, for example, the role of the superior judiciary over time. The superior judiciary generally sided with the firm administrative actions of the executive and provided legal and constitutional cover to all military takeovers. The well-publicised Supreme Court judgement declaring General Yahya Khan an usurper in 1972 was announced four months after Yahya Khan lost power. Some of the judges belonging to the present-day superior judiciary took oath under the Provincial Constitutional Order (PCO) in January 2000 after General Musharraf’s military takeover and, in May 2000, gave him legal and judicial cover.

The profile of the superior judiciary began to change in 2007 and by 2008-2009 it became more independent and assertive and expanded the domain of judicial initiative. It is now building more pressure than ever on the executive by taking measures that are traditionally the domain of the executive, i.e. fixing the price of sugar or determining transport fares in Punjab. This change can be attributed to the transformation of the disposition of the judges and re-articulation of their role, which changed the profile of the institution of superior judiciary, especially the Supreme Court.

Pakistan’s politics manifest two trends. Political forces react slowly to military rulers, enabling the latter to rule for a decade or so. In the case of a civilian government, political adversaries are quick to challenge the civilian government. They hardly wait for two years before threatening mass protests, demanding its removal or asking for mid-term elections.

The infighting among political parties enables the military and the intelligence establishment to assert their role. This produces another trend: non-representative institutions are able to build pressure on political and representative institutions. Our civilian governments face a twofold challenge from their political-civilian colleagues and the military-bureaucratic institutions. Now the superior judiciary, another non-elected and non-representative institution, is also building pressure on the elected executive.

The PPP-led federal government, especially President Asif Ali Zardari, faces a siege-like situation due to the subtle behind-the-scene moves by the military top brass, the political fallout of the Supreme Court judgement on the NRO, and the off-again, on-again pressure by the PML-N that often results in polemical verbal exchanges between the leaders of the PML-N and the PPP.

One can apportion some blame for the PPP’s current predicament to its poor governance, inability to address the socio-economic problems of the common people, the attempts to run the coalition government as a single-party government and the failure to maintain working relations with the PML-N. However, Zardari’s political future was not jeopardised until he developed policy differences with the military top brass and alienated the superior judiciary by unnecessarily delaying the restoration of the chief justice and some of the judges. It is a known fact that Zardari was not in favour of restoring them until societal groups and various political parties, especially the PML-N, embarked on the long march and the army chief persuaded him to relent.

Zardari found himself in deep political trouble when the top brass of the military publicly expressed strong reservations on the provisions of the Kerry-Lugar bill, which the PPP-led government described as its major diplomatic achievement. This public display of resentment by the military was a much-needed signal to the PML-N and other opposition parties to boldly challenge the government on this issue. The opposition also noted with satisfaction the military’s displeasure at Zardari’s unguarded statements on the nuclear policy and relations with India.

The Supreme Court judgement on the NRO has left enough space for the opposition to continue targeting the federal government, especially Zardari. While ignoring the constitutional immunity from criminal proceedings to the president, the judgement has asked for a revival of the cases including those in foreign countries. The specific mention of how the bank assets of former presidents Ferdinand Marcos (The Philippines) and General Sani Abacha (Nigeria) were secured by their respective governments through legal proceedings provides a subtle lead to what the judgement expects the government to do with reference to Zardari. Further, the references to Islamic provisions of the Constitution, especially Articles 2A, 62, 63 and 227 are noteworthy.

The opposition was quick to turn the heat on Zardari. Some leaders and legal experts argued that constitutional immunity would not apply to Zardari. One legal expert known for his antipathy to Zardari suggested that the Supreme Court should summon the military for the implementation of the judgement. Others hinted at challenging the eligibility of Zardari to hold on to the presidency in court and said that the Supreme Court could suspend him from functioning as the president.

It is interesting that no political leader is talking about Zardari’s impeachment through parliament because the opposition does not have the required number. They are toying with the idea of extra-parliamentary pressure to force him to resign or they are hoping that non-elected institutions of the state like the military and the judiciary will do the ‘job’ in their own ways. It would be unfortunate if these two institutions force Zardari out of office.

The key issue pertains to the day after Zardari is knocked out. The opposition hopes that the PPP minus Zardari will continue to hold on to power but this may not materialise. If the cabinet and other PPP leaders in key official positions decide to quit, Pakistan faces an institutional and democratic crisis. It will be an uphill task for the military to create an alternate governmental structure. Perhaps it may work towards contriving a new power coalition around the PML-N. It is not clear if the PML-N would like to accept the offer when its options to function autonomously will be constrained by the initiators of this move. Can a stable and coherent government be established by excluding the two mainstream political parties? The answer is no.

Individuals and institutions cannot be separated. Any extra-constitutional or extra-parliamentary move to dislodge Zardari is likely to be highly dangerous for enduring democracy and civilian primacy. Our political forces have to ponder over other political options in order to avoid the risk of losing the initiative to non-representative state institutions.

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