The Transition to Democracy

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Cyril Almeida*

The February 2008 elections were not supposed to be a death knell for the Musharraf era. The former general and Pakistan’s president had made clear his intention to stay in office and guide Pakistan’s transition to democracy for at least another five years. But the electorate had other ideas and the PML-Q’s dismal showing weakened Musharraf’s hand considerably.

Even  so,  being  shunted  out  of  office  a  mere  six  months  later was clearly not something the president had contemplated. His great reluctance to quit the national stage was apparent as provincial assembly after provincial assembly lined up to essentially demand his ouster. When the end finally did come on 18 August it came once the president had been left with no choice: were he not to have resigned, parliament was certain to have impeached him and removed him from office.

One upshot of Musharraf’s exit was to clarify that Pakistan well and truly had an opportunity to transition to democracy. It was no longer the ‘controlled experiment’ that Musharraf had in mind – a PML-Q- led federal government with a friendly opposition led by the PPP or an uneasy coalition headlined by the two parties – but a tenuous democracy that had one important thing going for it: the largest parties in parliament, the PPP and PML-N, had clear political legitimacy.

For better or worse, the transition was now set up in a way that left its destiny in the hands of the major political parties with genuine electoral support. Could they make it work? And if they didn’t, what did that mean for the future of democracy in Pakistan? Would another failure mean that the paradigm itself – representative democracy with a strong parliament and strong political parties – was wrong? Or would an inability to nurse the transition along mean simply that the circumstances and the overhang of the Musharraf era were too powerful to overcome and that democracy can and will work one day?

Eighteen months later, there appears to be some reason for cheer. Mathematically, there is a solid government at the centre. The PPP, MQM, ANP and JUI-F and sundry independents and allies have 200-odd seats in the 342-seat National Assembly. In the Senate, too, following the March elections, the ruling coalition has a majority, though not as comfortable as in the National Assembly. The coalition is also stable from the point of view of ideology: barring the JUI-F, a religious party but a shrewdly practical one, the other members of the coalition have a similar outlook; the major components all have what can be termed a left-of-centre, secular approach to politics.

On the opposition side, the PML-N appears content for now to play a muted role. Individual policies of the government are objected to or disagreed with, but for now the party has held its fire, or at least sustained fire. Sitting alongside it is the PML-Q, a party essentially carved out from the PML-N, and one that, if history is any guide, will eventually largely fold back into its parent party. Ideologically too the opposition can be clubbed together: both the PML-N and PML-Q have conservative politics in contrast to the coalition parties.

More than the composition of the government and opposition though, reason for cheer can be seen in the resolution of thus-far serious disputes between the two sides. Consider the judges issue and the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The PML-N joined the federal government in March 2008 on the condition that the so-called non-PCO judges were to be restored to office immediately. When the PPP dragged its feet on the implementation of the agreement, the PML-N withdrew from the cabinet in protest. The issue hung fire over the country’s politics until March 2009 when matters came to a head with the second ‘long march’ to press for the reinstatement of essentially Chief Justice

15-16 there was real fear that chaos could break out. But an amicable solution was found: the PPP agreed to restore all the remaining judges, while the PML-N did not convert the march into a referendum in Punjab on the central government. Sanity prevailed, as many political watchers explained with much relief.

The second major crisis defused without the protagonists drawing too much blood was the tussle over which party, the PPP or the PML-N, was to run the Punjab government. In some ways that issue was also the catalyst for the PML-N’s support for the long march. Until the appeal against the disqualification from electoral politics of the Sharif brothers had been dismissed by the Supreme Court and governor’s rule imposed in Punjab, the PML-N had been sitting on the fence about participation, or the extent of their participation, in the long march and the planned open-ended sit-in. The disqualification of the Sharifs and the subsequent imposition of governor’s rule was the proverbial last straw; shut out of power in both Islamabad and Lahore, there was little incentive or opportunity for them to fight from within the system. So now the worst- case scenario seemed quite possible: that the PML-N would opt to flex its muscles on the streets of Punjab and destabilise the centre in retaliation. It did not come to pass.

The whys are complicated. The PPP had suffered a grievous wound with the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry – in a high-stakes game of brinksmanship, it folded ignominiously (little attempt has been made to ascertain the size of the crowd in Gujranwala, where Nawaz Sharif ultimately called off the long march after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s early morning speech to the nation, but the more realistic figures suggest a crowd of between 30,000-50,000). The die had been cast: on the back of that showing, it was all but impossible to imagine Punjab run by anyone other than the PML-N, especially the PPP.

There was also the fact that the PPP’s Punjab team grossly miscalculated the support it would get from the PML-Q. The ‘forward bloc’ broke the other way, for the PML-N, and there was no sign that the PPP would be able to wean more than a handful, let alone what it needed: the party en masse, of PML-Q members to its side. So with its plan dead in the water, the PPP allowed the PML-N government to be revived, hiding behind the fig leaf that the Supreme Court had first suspended Shahbaz Sharif’s disqualification and later rejected it. Yet, in this unsavoury episode too a certain tendency to push but not all the way was discernible: the PPP did put an almighty effort into wooing the PML-Q Punjab assembly members, but it stopped short of character assassination of the PML-N. Likewise, the PML-N did not push back too far: the heated rhetoric against President Zardari quickly died down and no great effort was made to force out the PPP members who were part of the Punjab cabinet of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

The third major issue on which agreement has been reached is support for the use of the military option against militants in Pakistan. Specifically,  the  operation  in  Malakand  division,  Operation  Rah-i- Rast, was ex post endorsed by the PML-N in an all-parties conference, thereby ensuring that the only potential major spoiler in the creation of a ‘national consensus’ on the need to militarily fight the militants in some situations had been avoided. Here, at last, the two largest political parties in Pakistan had come together and shown that the ‘national interest’ did in fact trump narrow party politics on occasion. At the time of writing this piece, the Pakistan Army is preparing to enter the lair of Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan Agency (Operation Rah-i-Nijaat) and once again the PML-N appears to be keeping its objections to a minimum.

All in all, then, it appears to be a decent scorecard for the transition to democracy: two major political crises defused by, admittedly, late- in-the-day pragmatism (though, in Pakistan, better late than never); neither crisis was exploited by the opposition in the short term to foment a new crisis or beat the government with afterwards; and a political consensus to fight the most serious internal threat to the state in decades, a consensus all the more remarkable because the PML-N has little to gain and everything to lose electorally (if the operations succeed, the government and the security forces will get the credit; if they fail, the PML-N has identified itself with the policy and cannot pummel the government over its failure). really.

On the plus side, while Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif have certainly learned to circle each other warily and strike on occasion, an uneasy truce seems to have prevailed for now. A year and a half from elections, this is a good sign and the system seems set to hold for now. In a democratic system as personality driven as the one in Pakistan, détente between the key players is a key part of stability.

Having said that, perhaps détente is a result of neither of the two having good options against the other at the moment. Asif Zardari played his cards and failed spectacularly in Punjab. Another upheaval in the province is unlikely to be triggered by the PPP because the legal route against Shahbaz Sharif has been exhausted and the political route has been blocked by the fractious PML-Q, a significant portion of which continues to lean heavily towards the PML-N.

As for Nawaz Sharif, striking at the centre at the moment may appear unappealing because his party would then have to grasp the nettle of governance. With the economy in such a fragile state (the budget- makers have suggested that growth will only limp to 4.5 per cent of GDP in 2012, if all goes according to plan) and the country racked by insurgencies, taking the reins at the centre at this time cannot be very appealing. Moreover, Sharif must be aware that he has to prove his bona fides as a responsible leader to two key players outside the civilian set- up: the army and the US. While the army is in theory more aligned with the politics of Sharif it is also suspicious of his tendency to go it alone and stick a thumb in the eye of authority. And with the US focused on its ‘Af-Pak’ policy and keen to bring some stability to Pakistan, a national leader who is willing to take radical risks (such as by pushing for a mid-term election) will not go down very well. So, for Sharif, playing the role of a responsible opposition that is willing to extend the hand of cooperation on an issue-to-issue basis while quietly rebuilding the party’s base in Punjab, and perhaps to a lesser degree in parts of the other provinces, may appear to be the preferable option for now.

And therein lies the rub: the transition to democracy has once again become hostage to the calculations of individuals. If circumstances or the calculations change, a new crisis can be precipitated and trigger fresh destabilisation with unpredictable consequences. Ex post, it would become apparent that the very issues that had seemingly been resolved amicably – the judges issue and the fate of the Punjab government – were only the opening salvos in the familiar internecine intra-civilian fighting that has dogged Pakistan since the 1950s.

The real problem with the transition though is not the potential for the civilians to squabble among themselves. Even if the government falls, the idea of a transition to democracy would not necessarily be rendered invalid: it could mean only that this particular iteration of civilian government did not work. Politicians everywhere, after all, have one central goal – the eventual acquisition of power – and contesting who is to rule when is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Italy and Israel, to name but two countries, have had dozens of changes of governments in the last six decades, but it would be difficult to argue that they are not democracies. Alternating governments, even of governments that do not complete their terms, is a sign of weakness, yes; however, the weakness is of a qualitatively different kind. The problem with Pakistan is really one of institution-building and strengthening the framework of democracy. Institutions matter, indeed they can be a bulwark against extreme instability that threatens the system itself. And the appropriate framework in a democratic polity can ensure that the long-term trajectory of a democracy is correct.

This is where the current transition to democracy is failing. Assume for a minute that the Asif Zardari-led government falls. What will it have given the country going forward? Issues have been addressed, yes. Painful but arguably necessary macroeconomic stabilisation has been achieved, there is unprecedented national support to fight insurgents and militants, a broad-based national government has been created – but none of these have been institution-building in nature nor can it be suggested that they have qualitatively affected the framework of democracy itself in the country. Whoever comes next will not have institutions that are any stronger than they were before the present government took office.

Institution-building can appear to be a vague, nebulous term. It can be easily concretised though with an example from Pakistan itself. This from the website of the State Bank of Pakistan:

“Under financial sector reforms, the State Bank of Pakistan was granted autonomy in February 1994. On 21st January, 1997, this autonomy was further strengthened by issuing three Amendment Ordinances (which were approved by the Parliament in May, 1997) …. The changes in the State Bank Act gave full and exclusive authority to the State Bank to regulate the banking sector, to conduct an independent monetary policy and to set limit on government borrowings from the State Bank of Pakistan.”

Given that the State Bank acquiesced in the last year of the Musharraf era to the government’s gravely unadvisable ploy of letting subsidies balloon in an election year, it may appear a poor example of institution-building. After all, the Bank itself claims that it had the “full and exclusive authority” to “set limit on government borrowings from the State Bank of Pakistan” as far back as 1997, but a decade later it failed to do so. However, the argument forgets that the State Bank needs to, for institutional coherence, be in step with the policies of the Ministry of Finance. With the government bent on loosening fiscal discipline, there was little that the Bank could do. Some have suggested that the then-president of the State Bank, Shamshad Akhtar, resign in protest. Perhaps Akhtar should have, but none of that detracts from the other good work of the Bank.

It is professionally run, it has a cadre of well-trained and knowledgeable in-house experts, and its commitment to producing and publishing timely and reliable data and reports is widely appreciated in the financial sector. The Bank’s quarterly report, ‘The state of Pakistan’s economy’, has become a must-read for economy-watchers and it has often contradicted rather boldly projections made by other arms of the state. Moreover, with the explosive growth in the banking sector in the last decade, it is generally believed that the Bank has managed the process reasonably well. Private-sector bankers have criticised the bank for too-stringent regulation and for stipulating onerous paid-up capital requirements, but a number of those State Bank-mandated requirements in all likelihood helped many banks survive the crisis in the sector in Fall 2008.

The 1994 and 1997 State Bank reforms are then an example of real institution-building: seemingly bland and opaque to outsiders, but critical to the management of a fundamental sector of a modern economy. No such initiatives have been tabled by the present government though. Talk has centred on a constitutional amendment package to redress some of the imbalances of power among the institutions of the state, but it has so far been just that – talk. No doubt a well-conceived set of amendments could do much to undo the constitutional mess that has been created over the years. But it is not the be all and end all that it has been made out to be – without it some of the largest problems to creating a stable democracy in Pakistan will remain, no doubt; however, that does not mean nothing can be done on other fronts in the meantime.

But that is precisely what the government is doing in the meantime: nothing. Consider just two of the various possibilities. With the Pakistan Army engaged in fighting in north-west Pakistan and FATA and a long- term security threat from militancy in the country, the government is frantically trying to react to events. But decision-making need not be ad hoc and reactive. There is an existing body, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, that could streamline much of the process. Create a powerful secretariat staffed with experts, ensure regular meetings and follow- ups, shore up the linkages with parliamentary committees rather than rely on the military for input, and the body of knowledge and processes thus created would be very useful for this and subsequent governments. The government is aware of this – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani suggested last December a separate secretariat for the DCC would be created – but has failed to act.

Similarly, the civilian government is groping in the dark on its national security policy and is too reliant on the military. The last time a white paper on national security was commissioned was in the mid-1970s. The defence sector underwent its last major overhaul in that period too. Going forward, the country is facing a fundamental, perhaps existential, security threat in the years ahead. Such times call for going back to the drawing board and conducting a root and branch survey and overhaul of the security apparatus. Instead, the government is approaching the issue piecemeal: terrorist strikes increase, create a national counter-terrorism authority and build up the police force; insurgents overrun an area, send in the army and learn by doing the mechanics of counter-insurgencies.

So, eighteen months since the transition to democracy ostensibly began, in fundamental ways it has yet to get off the ground. Events have occurred and they have been addressed in some way – they had to be. Events will always occur and, as long as the state is still in existence, they will be addressed in some measure. But democracy, real, substantive, meaningful democracy, is about the capacity for an institutional response, not about depending completely on the capabilities of individual leaders, be it Zardari, Sharif or even Jinnah. We have yet to see any signs of the former thus far. So the verdict must be: status quo prevails; transition in cold storage.