Pakistan: Election 2024 Will Be Meaningless If Future Of Democracy Remains In Limbo In Country – OpEd


When the RTS system was deployed for the 2018 elections, it notably came to a stop on the evening of election day, July 25, 2018, after that the country had witnessed and experienced the worst political, economic, and legal crisis in its history following the botched and heavily manipulated 2018 elections.

Well after midnight on the 2018 election day, the ECP secretary appeared on TV screens to inform the nation that the RTS had “collapsed” and that the ECP was returning to the traditional method of manually tabulating the results. Consequently, the required results were achieved and a hybrid regime of its worst kind was imposed. Though some political furor made by the opposition for a time after the 2018 general elections made the ECP initially ask the cabinet division to form an inquiry committee for the failure of RTS. However, its report, if an inquiry was ever conducted, never saw the light of day.

The whole governing structure was somehow muddled through hybrid, unrealistic anti-democratic, and unconstitutional practices. We barely survived a default rather than a collapse of the whole state governance structure. 

Later on, after three and half years of failed experience, rolling back of the hybrid political dispensation of 2018 and hectic efforts of new military and to some extent, civilian leadership coupled with significant external help, particularly from Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, and most recently USA has only kept the system intact and Pakistan’s state structure has come back on track again.

The common people suffered and perhaps were and are the most affected in this struggle for political or institutional hybrid arrangements around the military’s great organizational strength. The last 30 months or so have been of extreme turmoil in the country. Leadership in the previous regime has mostly been found morally, intellectually, and financially corrupt and the absence of viable institutions of governance has left a void in the country.

The historical record reveals that the country saw only the first and the last free fair and impartial elections in the year 1970, which unfortunately resulted in the dismemberment of the country due to a latent violation of and denial of democratic principles. Thereafter, the rest of the elections held so far have utterly failed to lead the nation towards parliamentary sovereignty in Pakistan.

The threat perception of free and fair elections ingrained in the minds of military establishments after the 1970 elections has resulted in either direct military rule or later on hybrid democratic regimes through famous political engineering. In such backdrop, Pakistan’s ongoing democratic transition began when elections were held on February 18, 2008. As Musharraf’s dictatorship weakened in 2007, foreign mediators and guarantors including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates made efforts to bring about a restoration of democracy in Pakistan. These discussions allowed for the return of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the PPP, and Nawaz Sharif, who was the leader of the PML-N after signing the charter of democracy. While Benazir was assassinated on December 27, 2007, after a political rally in Rawalpindi, the agreement broadly remained in place, leading to elections in February 2008.

However, elections did not lead to parliamentary sovereignty in Pakistan because of the infamous Memogate scandal. The removal of PM Gilani, the country’s then-prime minister, was dismissed by the Supreme Court for contempt of court, becoming the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be removed from office by the superior courts.

Further, Elections in 2013 led to the first-ever peaceful and democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N emerged victorious, but it soon realized the limits of civilian supremacy in Pakistan’s hybrid democracy.

Hounded by an emerging contender to power in the form of Imran Khan’s PTI, who alleged mass rigging in the elections, the PML-N government also remained off balance. A protest in Islamabad that lasted from August 14 to December 17, 2014, was held against alleged rigging in the 2013 elections.

Nawaz was ultimately ousted from power in the wake of the Panama Papers revelation with the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He became the second prime minister in history to be dismissed from office by the superior judiciary, but his PML-N hung onto power until the 2018 elections, which led to the emergence of PTI as the largest political party in Pakistan’s national assembly.

Pakistan’s parliament after the 2018 elections, Imran’s power was also severely constrained by Pakistan’s hybrid democracy. While his ministers frequently talked about the civilian and military leadership being on the same page even endorsing the extension of Bajwa, the divide grew and IK was removed through a non-confidence motion with political engineering.

Major Impediments to Democracy

In Pakistan’s hybrid democracy, the military establishment has always remained all-powerful, the political leadership has been divided, weakened, and acted upon the dictation of establishment. There are two major impediments to democracy and democratic institutions in the country. One as discussed is the constant involvement of the establishment in the political process and the second is the ruling elites.

No doubt democracy is a people-centered political system, one would expect that in a democracy elitism would be conspicuous by its absence. However, in both theory and practice, democracy and elitism are not mutually exclusive. The elite theory popularized by Italian social scientists Pareto and Mosca argues that all societies, regardless of the form of government, are governed by one or more political elites.

Pakistan has often been described as an elitist state because the national economy is captured by a small elite class that both manipulate the market and control the state institutions. The result is a vicious combination of inefficient resource allocation (market failure) and inequitable income distribution (government failure). The elite has been so powerful that a change in government, or even a transition from despotism to democracy and vice versa, failed to hold it in check.

Therefore, the successive governments benefited, from elite capture. Their policies on the one hand promoted cronyism and rent seeking and on the other neglected social sector and human resource development so that the elite’s preeminent position remained unchallenged. The already scarce resources were allocated primarily to grand infrastructure-related projects in the name of development. Such projects served as a source of rent for the businesses and commissions and kickbacks for the people in power.

The antithesis of elitism is welfare economics or social democracy, whose most concrete embodiment is the welfare state. A major challenge in establishing a welfare state is the availability of finances and an uninterrupted democratic and political process, and obviously holding free and fair elections.

Why Democracy is essential?

The well-established ethos and a basic tenet of democracy is pluralism. But the party in power with the support of the establishment has been mostly denying this right to the opposition. In a country like ours, a more participatory and strongly supported government is essential for making difficult decisions and in the long run essential for placing the country in the right direction but regrettably this aim is seldom realized by our ruling elites. 

Moving toward genuine democratic order is not merely a theoretical percept but a functional fundamental, as we ought to have learned over the years. No country has remained stable and progressed and has faltered on this basic concept. India and Bangladesh are the best examples. Therefore, a strong parliament, respect for the constitution, rule of law, impartial judiciary, strong and apolitical military, and above all good governance are the key elements to ensure the functioning democracy. 

In conclusion, democratic order in Pakistan has become essential, as the nation navigates through the challenges and opportunities of the 2024 elections. The positive democratic progress, the active role of civil society, youth, and media, along with ongoing international support collectively will contribute to a brighter democratic future. The robust and sustainable democratic system will be gauged by the role of the establishment in the forthcoming 2024 elections.

The basic point of democracy is to let people choose whomever they like but in countries like Pakistan deviate from this basic principle. The professional elites and the establishment often do not understand the fallout of the populist (and corrupt) politicians duly prepared in the undemocratic hatchery. They have always served their interests rather than the interests of the nation. 

What to do?

No doubt, successful third-world democracies like Pakistan are born out of cooperation between politicians with vote banks and middle-class professionals (including economists, scholars, and jurists) with a pat of establishment at their back but such cooperation is unfortunately scarce in the country for long. 

The whole nation at the moment is engaged in preparation for forthcoming elections with the hope of sending their representatives to the parliament for a solution of their own but the situation on the ground depicts altogether the opposite scenario. Analysts believe that the ‘unfairness’ level of the 2024 general elections will be similar to what was witnessed from the general election in 1970 to the elections in 2018. What remains to be seen by the country is whether the upcoming election will be a repeat of the previous elections instead or the powerful actors in the corridors of power will listen to Albert Einstein, who famously said,  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. 

Now the ball is in the establishment’s court. Would they learn from the history and the best practices of the countries that progressed when they had strong institutions that conformed to democratic values and stayed within constitutional boundaries serving the interests of the people? 

The country has been borne out by constant, peaceful political and constitutional processes and above all by acts of parliament. The nation’s founding fathers strongly believed in parliamentary democracy, a weak federal governance structure with strong and autonomous federating units as enshrined in Jinnah’s fourteen points and particularly in 1940 lahore resolution later on called Pakistan resolution. Therefore, it is incumbent upon both civil and military leadership to adhere to the political philosophy of the founding fathers and ensure a free, fair, and impartial electorate across the country, otherwise faltering and failing to adhere to these basic premises, the nation will pay a heavy price for these fundamental digressions in near future.

Sher Khan Bazai

Sher Khan Bazai is a retired civil servant, and a former Secretary of Education in Balochistan, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected].

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