The debate on democracy and democratisation in Pakistan is as old as the country. The majority of the existing literature tries to understand (the lack of) democracy with reference to military rule. This dimension is very central to the puzzle. However, equally important is to view and measure democratisation from the perspective of political parties, politicians and the public. This article is an exercise in this respect.
To begin with, after the PML-N government’s almost three years in office, the majority of people in Pakistan ask the question whether a democratic dispensation is suited for a country like Pakistan. The other day an English language daily published an article called “The majority myth”, which argued that despite elections being based on the majority principle, Pakistan is factually ruled by a minority of politicians and political parties that grabbed votes only from a limited electorate and that the vast majority is not represented in parliament. Such assertions are caused by the failure of the current democratic set up to fulfil the pledges made during its election campaign. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, almost all decisions during the last three years were taken without sufficient deliberations in the National Assembly or the Senate. Importunately, financial decisions that immediately affect the country’s economic health are not taken with enough participation by the representatives of the people (i.e. loans from IMF or floating national bonds).
Internally, most of the parties lack any democratic process. While the PPP government in the first three months of 2013 did a lot of paper work and passed resolutions in parliament, the PML-N government is unable to give attention to a single private member’s bill tabled in the lower house. Since June 2013, less than a hundred private members’ bills have been tabled. The judiciary and the executive have mostly been on a collision course, especially during the Zardari years. Moreover, the performance of provincial Assemblies has also been no different.
It must be noted that political parties and leaders, civil society organisations and activists support democracy at the conceptual and normative level. Political activists and party members demand participatory decision making and accountability. However, despite all that, from 2013 to the present, no concrete effort has been made by the representatives of the people to operationalise such concepts into the politics of Pakistan. Both at the federal and provincial level, the rulers have personalised power and demand an uncritical acceptance of all the decisions made by them. They have used the state apparatus and resources in a partisan way without accountability. In addition, the PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) sit-ins in Islamabad showed little respect for democratic institutions when the former urged the ‘umpire’ (the military) to directly intervene in the country’s politics. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has, nevertheless, played an arbitrator role between the government and the opposition. In addition, lack of commitment to democratic institutions on the part of the Prime Minister (PM) can be seen in his absence from the National Assembly and the Senate debates. Ironically, however, the PM resorted to parliament for political support vis-à-vis the PTI and PAT. But this may be regarded as an exception rather than the norm.
Pakistan has a multi-party system. The three major political parties with a nationwide representation are the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PTI is the latest entry into the political landscape of Pakistan. In addition, there are several regional parties based on ethnicity such as the Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Balochistan National Party (BNP). Moreover, major religious political parties include the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP). The Islamic parties have followers mostly in urban areas and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Except the PTI and JI, other parties do not conduct intra-party elections. The PML-N is the exclusive preserve of the Sharif family. The PPP has had a hereditary chairmanship since its inception. Most of the parties get votes on a personality basis rather than performance. This lack of issue-oriented politics is responsible for the abysmal performance of Pakistan’s state and political institutions. A strong party system is necessary for democratic institutions to take root. Unfortunately, Pakistan lacks a vibrant and vigilant party system to guard the system against external pressures.
Moreover, there are various interest groups in Pakistan that are working at different levels and in different capacities. There are many civil society organisations, religious groups, student and labour unions that work to safeguard the interests of their members. Civil society organisations include, among others, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which works for the rights of individuals and groups. Similarly, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) works for children’s rights. Moreover, numerous groups work for women’s rights. Besides, religious groups work to ensure that the curricula in schools include enough material on Islamic teachings. The civil society organisations are reaching out to both policy making circles and poor people to transform the prevailing conditions. They are also involved in advocacy and awareness campaigns. During 2013-16, most of the interest groups and civil society organisations worked freely in Punjab and Sindh. However, in FATA and some parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa their activities were restricted with physical threats to their members. Indeed, polio workers belonging to different NGOs have been killed in the aforesaid provinces.
According to a PILDAT survey, in 2013-14, 67 percent of the population of Pakistan accepted that democracy is the best form of government in Pakistan. However, according to the survey, 19 percent approved of military rule. Fifty-four percent people from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa believed that the democratic dispensation would cater to the people’s needs. But in Sindh, the people were pessimistic about democracy in Pakistan and opined that the system was not suitable under the current circumstances. However, in Punjab, a positive trend was observed where people overwhelmingly supported democratic institutions and values.
What can be concluded in view of the aforementioned facts is that Pakistan’s struggle for democracy is still not over. The majority of the people support democratic values and institutions. However, it is unfortunate to note that the majority of political parties and politicians in this county lack a democratic mindset and instead believe in personal rule in the garb of democracy. Until there is an attitudinal shift among the Pakistani political elite, liberal democracy will remain a distant dream and the country will be run as a hardline autocracy as is the case at the moment.
The author is a DAAD fellow and the head of department of social sciences at Iqra University, Islamabad. He has authored Military Agency, Politics and the State in Pakistan. He tweets @ejazbahhty