It was the trauma of political subjugation that drove the Muslims away from the idea of a united Hindustan. It was only after a long and persistent social suppression that the idea of a sovereign and independent Pakistan captured the imagination of the Muslims of the sub-continent.
As such, the idea was, in one sense, a by-product of socio-political maltreatment of the Muslims at the hands of the majority community. The dirty game of politics led the Muslims towards the formation of their own homeland wherein they could manage their affairs in accordance with their ideals, and give expression to their inner most urges of national unity and integrity. But the dream seems to have gone sour because of multiple reasons. One of the most important reasons was and is the fragile political culture, dominated by the elite, which prevailed soon after the demise of the Quaid. The degenerated political system has been the bane of Pakistan since its birth, and to date, it continues to suffer from various impediments springing from multifarious socio-economic and socio-political factors.
The peculiar political culture of Pakistan thus developed over the years has created many other problems. It has not only shaped state-society relationship, but also given space to non-political institutions to dominate centers of power. Absence of electoral process, derailing of elected parliaments, weak political institutions, gap between the public and the government, and trust deficit are some of the features of Pakistan’s political experience that have largely shaped its character and course of development.
But nothing is permanent howsoever strong or weak it may be. Change does occur in all systems, though its pace may vary. The Political System of Pakistan, since the beginning of 21st century, is also undergoing gradual yet definite transformation. Its causes are many and its affects are being felt at every level of Pakistani society, especially its peculiar feudalistic social structure. However, the process of change cannot be said to be something new. In the past, many leaders tried to transform Pakistan according to their own political ideals. But that could not happen because those processes failed to win just enough public support mainly because the leaders did not reach out to the electorates before embarking upon such programmes. But, today, it is this very factor—mass participation in political affairs—that distinguishes the current Pakistan from the old era, and it is because of this factor alone that one can claim to have reasons to believe that Pakistan has a bright future and a stable political system. What gives this factor more strength is the fact that it is not politicians who are reaching out to their electorates; rather it is the people themselves who are yearning to be the part of political system and craving for strong and stable Pakistan. There is a strong urge among the people to keep their homeland safe and strong, and to fulfill the dream of its founder.
But much is yet to be achieved. The biggest challenge is how to create and sustain those institutions and processes which reflect genuine democratic spirit; how to operationalize the rhetoric of democracy which rulers have been pronouncing for years; how to establish rule of law and supremacy of the constitution; and, how to ensure protection of citizen’s rights and freedom. These are the key pre-requisites of democracy without which it remains but a tool in the hands of rulers who exploit it for implanting their own agendas. As such, the real problem, in case of Pakistan, lies at the operational level of democracy.
We will first identify major problems of democracy in Pakistan that hinder its operationalization, and then evaluate new developments that have been taking place at this very level since the last decade or so. It is only then can we have a projected view of the future of Pakistan’s political system.
One of the major problems of Pakistan’s political system is the imbalance between its political and non-political institutions, which is between parliament and bureaucracy, both civil and military. This imbalance continues to limit the growth of civil institutions and rule of law. This imbalance has left an indelible imprint on the political experience of Pakistan since independence.. The weak and fragmented political forces found it difficult to sustain themselves without the support and cooperation of the bureaucracy and the military. This enables the establishment to enhance its role in policy making, hence political domination. As such, this is one of the major reasons of political instability, uncertainty and incredibility. De-politicization of military and bureaucracy is one major challenge upon which rests the prospects of a stable political system.
The second main problem is lack of consensus on norms of polity. Democratic process cannot become functional without a minimum consensus on the operational norms of polity. As the political process functions over time and offers opportunities for sharing power and political advancement, it gets more support from among different sections of the society and the polity. This makes the political institutions and processes viable. But Pakistan’s polity has been unable to fully develop minimum consensus on the operational political norms because of periodic derailing of the elected governments. Tendency of the dominant political elite to impose selective consensus by excluding those who disagreed with them has retarded the evolution of genuine participatory governance system.
In any political system, political party and leadership play critical role. It is through these instruments that national interest is articulated and political mobilization carried out. This is especially true of a democratic system in which political harmonization and evolution of participatory political system are greatly facilitated by political parties and leadership. In Pakistan, political parties have traditionally been weak, often splitting into factions, and not playing their role in an efficient and effective manner. Their role has suffered also because of frequent suspensions of political activities under military regimes, infrequent elections, absence of attractive socio-economic programmes, paucity of financial resources, and because of domination of political parties by the ‘selected few.’
This hijacking of political parties has resulted in not only personalization of Pakistan’s politics, but also in inefficient leadership. Lack of intra-party democracy directly strengthens the hands of these so-called national leaders. One important defect of Pakistan’s political system is that no party has nation-wide base. All major parties are regionally based. Absence of parties having nationwide base results in coalition governments, based upon political compromises and manipulations. Hence, weak and inefficient coalitions fail to deliver.
A system works best when it reflects the society and caters to its needs. Pakistan is an Islamic country, and a pre-dominant majority of Pakistanis believe that political system of Pakistan must have some relationship with Islam. However, there exist strong difference with regard to extent and precise nature of that relationship. Although majority of Pakistanis are Muslims, there is a lack of consensus on the institutions and processes to be set up under the rubric of Islamic State. The debate on desirability or undesirability of incorporating Islamic junctions has become acute with the dawn of extremism and terrorism in the name of religion. As far as its impact on Political system is concerned, lack of consensus has adversely affected the prospects of democracy. As a matter of fact, keeping in view the socio-political realities of Pakistani society, it is highly desirable to achieve consensus on this sensitive issue before embarking upon the course of democratization of political system on western model.
The repeated usurpation of power by military and its desire to shape political system and society in accordance with its political preferences has adversely undermined the steady growth and sustainability of democratic institutions and processes. The military rulers either abolished or suspended the operation of constitution to acquire power and legitimize their rule. It is not only direct military intervention that has caused the derailing of democracy but also indirect involvement of military in the political system that has hindered democratic process. Supreme Court’s landmark judgement in Asghar Khan Case has amply exposed how military has been manipulating and dominating politics and infrequently held elections also. It also shows that political actors have always been in league with military in determining the course of political developments. Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf resorted to co-option of a section of the political elite. Their co-option strategy focused on some faction of the Muslim League. The strategy of co-option pre-supposed the exclusion of those who openly challenged the military-initiated political arrangements. All this reflects not only the fragility of political parties but also of the entire political system of Pakistan.
The problems identified in the foregoing paragraphs continue to persist till today. In other words, prospects of operational democracy are poor. In fact it is confronted with serious impediments which are serious and must be abolished before one can hope to have genuine democracy in Pakistan. Although political system is showing relative stability and continuity, democracy does not consist just of elected Governments at the center and provinces. Democracy is culture rather than a process or mode of election. It is an attitude which entails not only tolerance and consensus based politics, but also accountability, transparency, responsibility, commitment, rule of law, supremacy of constitution, provision and protection of fundamental human rights, mass participation, and last but not the least, massive political mobilization from bottom to top. Of course elections are life and blood of democracy, but casting one’s vote is meaningless unless its exercise is absolutely free of any pressure and other material considerations. As a matter of fact, numerous voters in Pakistan cast their vote not only on the basis of personal considerations but also because they expect something in return. It is here that democracy suffers the greatest casualty in Pakistan. People seem unprepared, ill-advised and reluctant to bear the burden that democracy places on their shoulders. As such, it is this particular area of democracy which is needed to be cured of its abuses before institutionalising and operationalising democratic culture in Pakistan.
The above mentioned essential ingredients of democratic culture are not all together missing in Pakistan. They exist at rudimentary level of development. It is because things have started to undergo transformation. Process of change is slow, yet it is definite and its effects can easily be discerned when one evaluates the recent history of Pakistan, especially since the dawn of 21st century. Those factors and elements which are important instruments of operational democracy, such as mass participation, power of public opinion, free media, increasing literacy level, political and social awareness, strong civil institutions, supremacy of the constitution, continuity of elected governments etc. are some of the observable changes that have taken place in the past few years. Years of frustration and disappointment have given vent to a strong desire of change among the masses.
Independent Media is a backbone of democracy. Rapid developments if the field of communication has squeezed the intra-society and inter-society gaps. Media does not only bridge the gap, but also give it a shape that is, somehow, essential for the operation of democracy. Pluralism, which is one of the most important aspects of democracy, can possibly grow only through Media. It provides that platform on which prevalent socio-political discourses are challenged, accepted, rejected, or modified to make them more representative in character. It is through the Media that both Government and Public interact. It is through Media that people exercise their democratic right to freedom of expression and directly or indirectly influence policies. Democratic character of any political system can be gauged by the level of freedom the media enjoys under it. However, the effectiveness of role of media in strengthening any system is contingent upon overall socio-political development of society. In case of Pakistan, emergence of independent media is a relatively recent phenomenon. The mushroom growth of electronic media channels have provided the Pakistanis with a source of information that was unavailable in the past. Its impact on political awareness of public is obvious. It has not only reduced the gap between common people and the Government but also given a new direction to Pakistan’s political system. However, independent media does not guarantee strong democracy. Although the media is a critical instrument of creating political awareness and initiating political mobilization, an immature media sometimes becomes a liability than as asset.
Pakistani media is yet to understand the intricacies that ensue as a result of political dynamism; it is yet to learn how to respond and absorb those forces in the unleashing of which it itself has been instrumental. In other words, media is yet at an embryonic stage of growth. But it I will not remain so forever. The course of change which has started to take place in Pakistan will affect media also, and it is but natural to assume that, with the passage of time, it will become more effective and more responsible.
Strengthening civil institutions is one another facet of Pakistan’s evolving Political System, and provides a reason to hope that it will eventually lead, in the long term, to civilian supremacy. Judicial activism and the role which superior judiciary has taken on since last two/three years is something which is being appreciated all over the world. It is being recognized as one glaring example of unfolding democratic culture. How it is going to help in operationalising democracy should be obvious form the way it has involved itself in redeeming common men of unaccountable and unresponsive character of the government. What has enabled Supreme Court play its role so effectively is the fact that it has people’s support and confidence. An independent judiciary holds a federation together. As a matter of fact, it is to it the executive appeals to resist the encroachment of Parliament; Parliament to defend itself against the assaults of the executive; the federal government to make the provinces obey it; the provinces to rebuff the exaggerated pretensions of the federal government, public interest against private interest etc. It is exactly this we can see taking place; it is this which gives hope of emerging democratic culture; it is this which has given people a sense of importance and eliminated decades long political alienation. Above all, it is ensuring two important pre-requisites of operational democracy: rule of law and supremacy of constitution.
The particular aspect of Pakistan’s political which has been affected because of the emergence of independent media and Judiciary is civil-military relations. Military, which has traditionally been influencing and dominating politics, seems to have been put under a sort of restraint. Many factors have influenced its traditional character. It is not only the changes described above but also the so-called war on terror which has discouraged it against dictating course of actions. The recent judicial activism and Parliamentary debates on national security have shown that the institutional imbalance could tilt in favour of elected organs of the State. Media’s criticism of Military’s role in politics reflects the change that is taking place. However, military is still far from complete de-politicization. Perhaps it will take long time to achieve this goal. Nevertheless, indicators are showing positive tilt, and military too is realizing the need and urgency of operationalising democracy in Pakistan by allowing it enough space to develop itself.
Rising literacy level and emerging middle class are two other important ingredients that play crucial role in any stable democratic political system. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that without a well educated public, democracy cannot work. If the essence of democracy is political participation, its pre-requisite is a politically aware public. What enabled politicians in the past to dominate and engage in power politics without being responsible to the masses was not only absence of elections but also extremely low level of literacy, and awareness. It was easy to exploit their deficiency for personal gains. According to the census of 1955, only 5 % of the whole population was literate, as opposed to today’s 56%. Rising literacy level and consequent change in attitude is very likely to facilitate Pakistan’s transition to operational democracy. It is so because it is going to have direct bearing on the attitude of all political stakeholders whether politicians or military.
Although positive trends are many, persistence of anti-democratic elements continues to haunt political future of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the rise of media, judiciary, literacy level and other pro-democratic trends, participation in practical politics remains beyond the reach of majority of the citizens of Pakistan. The democratic forces are yet to grow strong enough to break the hold of feudalistic structure of Pakistani society. Free and fair elections are life and blood of democracy, and reaching out to voters, establishing and maintaining connection with them, is essence of democracy.
However, Pakistan’s political parties are yet to learn this particular aspect of democracy. In fact it is political parties’ responsibility to break out of their traditional electoral shell and reach out to new voters with better, pro-people policies commanding nationwide appeal. This trend is missing in Pakistan, although not absolutely. Emerging new and popular political parties and their demand for electoral reforms plus their policy of registering voters with themselves is indicative of potential change. The fact that voters’ list has been computerised is itself a very positive development. However, none of these developments can dismantle the hold of political heavyweights like Waderas, and Zamindars over their respective constituencies. None of these developments can ensure abolishment of bridari and caste-based elections. It is the peculiar social structure of Pakistani society for which social reforms are needed, without which elections at village level, where bridari and caste allegiances dominate politics, would remain undemocratic. Furthermore, massive corruption and extremely low level of governance are indicative of poor level of Pakistan’s democratic culture.
No society is ever static; change is always going on, although its pace varies from society to society and from situation to situation. It is the characteristic of any society undergoing transformation that its major actors develop relationship of confrontation. Academic literature has demonstrated that corruption soars in emerging democracies before the democratic system is consolidated. This is because young democracies lack transparency, have few checks and balances and provide ample opportunity for rent-seekers to access public officials. Moreover, the quick emergence of embattled political leaders, parliamentarians, empowered judges, media professionals and other players in the democratic set-up leads to confrontational relationships. This happens also because of confusion prevailing with regard to their roles and positions in the newly emerging set up. It takes time before they become fully conversant with the demands of the new system, their expected roles, their liabilities and responsibilities. As Pakistan is in a transitory phase, it would be illogical to expect too much from major actors as also it would be unnatural to hope for an overnight revolution.
At the same time, it would be misleading to conclude, in view of the strength which pro-democratic forces have been gaining, that future of Pakistan’s political system is uncertain and dark. The rising level of public concern for better governance, increasing access to information, strengthening civil institutions and a vibrant media all signify and emphasise strongly bright prospects of Pakistan’s transition to democracy. These are the main instruments of operationalising democracy which are taking firm roots, and which are going to determine the political future of Pakistan.
About the Author: The Author is a Research-Analyst of International and Pakistan Affairs.
About the author: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an M.Sc in International Relations and a research-analyst of Pakistan and International Politics.
He can be contacted at [email protected]