By Abdul Basit
Pakistan is passing through a critical phase of transition in its history. The change of top political, military and judicial leadership and holding of parliamentary elections makes 2013 an important year for Pakistan. Whether this transition will steer Pakistan towards peace or instability will hinge upon continuation of the democratic process, willingness to continue fight against homegrown terrorism and insurgency, normalization with India and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
For the first time since its creation Pakistan is on the eve of seeing a democratic government completing its term in office in March 2013. National elections are due in Pakistan in April- May 2013. The President of Pakistan Asif Zardari will complete his tenure in September. In November, the army chief General Ashfaq Kiani’s term will conclude. The chief justice of Supreme Court (SC) Iftikhar Chuadhry will also retire in December.
Notwithstanding rampant corruption, poor governance, slowing economy and worsening security situation Pakistan has made a steady progress in last five years in consolidating the democratic process. The passage of the 18th constitutional amendment, which devolved maximum powers to provinces, and the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, which gave smaller province a bigger share in the national divisible pool, has expand the scope of parliamentary system in Pakistan.
Despite enormous differences between the government and opposition parties on various matters, legislation on key national issues was conducted in a bipartisan manner. The consensus with which the government and opposition parties passed the 20th constitutional amendment—detailing procedures about selection of the care taker set up, composition of an independent election commission and holding of free elections—is praise worthy.
For the first time, the business of foreign policymaking was conducted in the parliament. In retrospect the Pakistan army took the foreign policy decisions. The key decisions like normalization of relations with India, reviewing and rewriting the terms of engagement with the US, after NATO/ISAF air raid on a border check post in Mohmand tribal region killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011, were taken by the parliament.
The civil military relations are also transforming in Pakistan. Despite corruption and incompetency of the civilian rulers the systemic compulsions have forced the military leadership to refrain from interfering in the political process. On 5 November 2012 addressing a gathering of military officers in army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi the army chief said, “As a nation we are passing through a defining phase.”
He conceded, “No individual or institution had the monopoly to decide what was right or wrong in defining national interest and it should emerge only through consensus. We all agree that strengthening the institutions, ensuring the rule of law and working within the well defined bounds of the constitution is the right way forward.”
It is during the period of incumbent civilian government that Pakistan got enormous success against the Islamist militants groups in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Malakand division. Two major military operations codenamed Rah-e-Rast (Path to Salvation) in Swat district in March 2009 and Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Deliverance) in South Waziristan Agency in October 2009 enabled government to restore its writ in these areas. However, the fight against homegrown militants is far from over. The gains made in counter-terrorism operations are fragile and reversible. This fact has been acknowledged in the Pakistan army’s 2013 military doctrine. The new doctrine categorizes the internal threat to Pakistan from the Baloch insurgents, sectarian outfits and Islamist militant groups as a more imminent instead of India.
The strengthening of the democratic process in Pakistan has been by augmented by the emergence of three new power centers i.e. independent media, powerful judiciary and a vibrant civil society. Their emergence has opened up a new dimension in Pakistan’s political culture.
The Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan has given various landmark rulings in last few years. The SC has not only held politicians accountable for misconduct and corruption but it has also questioned the illegal practices of the powerful military. For instance, it has sought answers from Pakistan army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) regarding illegal detentions of youth from the insurgency-hit southwestern Balochistan province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Media’s role as a watchdog and opinion maker has enabled masses to make informed opinions about different government policies. As things are evolving in Pakistan at times both the SC and media have exceeded their limits as well. However, overall their presence has left a positive impact.
The vibrant role of civil society also gives a hope for future. The Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) along with media were at the forefront of the popular Lawyers’ Movement (2007-09). The lawyers’ movement not only ended the ten year military rule of General (Rtd.) Pervez Musharraf but also succeeded in pressurizing the government to restore judges of the Supreme Court, unconstitutionally deposed by the Mushrraf regime.
Civil society also played a key role in galvanizing public support against the Pakistani Taliban when they attacked Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girls’ education activist from Swat, in October 2012. Malala Yousafzai has emerged as a symbol of hope and courage in Pakistan who refused to bow down to forces of extremism and terrorism.
Most recently in January of this year Pakistan’s civil society actively participated in the countrywide demonstrations protesting brutal killings of ethnic Hazara Shia community in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, by anti-Shia militant group Lashkr-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). On 10 January 2013 a twin bomb blast in Quetta left 87 people belonging to Hazara community dead. The Hazaras refused to bury their victims. They camped in freezing conditions with the wrapped bodies for over three days demanding justice.
Pakistan stands at cross- roads of its history. In the face of all odds in the last five years democracy has consolidated itself in Pakistan. Despite many challenges which Pakistan confronts today it has all the right elements in place to muddle through current disorder and instability. The continuation of the democratic process will allow state and society institutions to steer Pakistan towards peace and stability.