“But if the future of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan seems more certain now than at any time in recent history it is because the centre of political gravity has moved down to the provinces and regions, and at the local level it is the Pakistan People’s Party that has a strong base”
Thus writes Haris Gazdar for the Economic and Political Weekly. We recommend this objective analysis of the current political trends in Pakistan that was recently published in Economic and Political Weekly. The author does an excellent job of presenting the main players in Pakistan’s politics without resorting to acts of omission – a tendency present in both the right-wing Urdu media press and their pseudo-liberal English press counterparts. In reality both media segments are complimentary in their avowed pro-establishment stance and it is a false binery to see them as opposed to one another beyond cosmetic differences. This study correctly evaluates the role of a politisized judiciary – an omission that is too frequent amongst the english media Dons and stems from their complicity with the Pro-Qadri lawyers to reinstate deeply political judges post 2008 elections. In delineating Pakistan’s political faultlines, the relevance of Gazdar’s articles extends beyond the current and must be taken into account by those looking for a rational primer in evaluating the Pakistani State.
Parliamentary democracy will survive inPakistan despite serious challenges because its powerful opponents are even more politically bankrupt than its feeble defenders. The smooth passage of a number of milestones culminating in general elections within the next fifteen months will establish a virtually irreversible supremacy of the parliamentary system over civil, military and judicial bureaucracies. A disruption in the democratic process at this stage can quickly lead to conditions of civil strife along regional and ethnic lines.
At the end of last October, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led coalition government of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani became the longest serving elected constitutional administration in the country’s history. Dependent on some mercurial coalition partners for a majority, under the constant pressure of a recalcitrant military, checked by an activist judiciary, and facing the barrage of unfettered privately owned media, it is hard to think of a single month in the 46 moons of its tenure which was without high drama and political crisis. While there is much to say about economic management, social policy, external relations, security, and political reform, in its twilight period the PPP-led administration faces challenges which have little to do with any of these major areas on which democratic governments may be held to account.
The political opposition is justifiably gearing up for elections which must be held within the next year or so, but an influential segment of it has joined the military and the judiciary in a three-pronged attack which has made the government appear even more vulnerable than usual to an untimely termination. At the core of this attack is the so-called ‘memogate’ issue which refers to the allegation that senior government figures, possibly even president and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, sought assistance from theUnited Statesto forestall a military coup in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s discovery and killing inPakistan. Mansoor Ijaz, an American businessman and lobbyist of Pakistani origin, claims to have forwarded a memorandum to formerUSmilitary chief Mike Mullen’s office with an offer of assistance to the US in return for help in seeing off the threat of a military takeover. He alleges that this memo was instigated by Zardari throughPakistan’s envoy toWashingtonDC. Hussain Haqqani, who resigned his position as ambassador to clear his name, denies involvement in the writing of the memo.
Ijaz’s allegations were made in an article published by the Financial Times in early October, but it was former cricketer and rising star of the right Imran Khan who was instrumental in raising the temperature inPakistanby publicly naming Haqqani and Zardari as guilty parties. Echoing the spin of parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and commentators known to be close to the military, Khan endorsed Ijaz’s account of a link with Haqqani, and further argued that any approach to a foreign power for assistance in preventing a military coup was tantamount to an act of treason. Khan’s shrill rhetoric was quickly followed by a meeting between the army chief Kayani and the prime minister, which the pro-military media reported as a faceoff on Ijaz’s allegations. Haqqani tendered his resignation and the government announced the setting up of a parliamentary enquiry into the matter.
Upping the ante, the leader of the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) filed a petition in the Supreme Court for an investigation into Ijaz’s claims, which the court admitted without a view to precedent. The court then became a stage for the open defiance on the part of the military leadership of civilian authority. In ominous moves the country’s chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry explicitly encouraged and allowed this defiance lending it dubious legal and constitutional legitimacy. Soon after, the chief judge further pressed the beleaguered government by resuming his pursuit of a 15-year old case against Zardari which had been on the back burner for the past two years. Acknowledging that Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity while in office, Chaudhry is pressing the government to reopen ancient corruption and money-laundering charges against the president in Swiss courts. The irony of taking the head of state to a foreign court while at the same time denouncing him as a traitor for allegedly seeking external support to forestall an unconstitutional act is missed, obviously enough, by right wing nationalists and pro-military media commentators.
The political opposition – namely Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League along with Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties – presumably wants to rattle the government into early elections. Imran Khan does not desire early polls as his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) needs more time in a bid to replace PML-N as the main party of the nationalist right. But he too has something to gain from the government’s troubles in court as he positions himself as a champion of faux sovereignty and a crusader against corruption. The chief judge’s single-minded focus on the PPP leadership is consistent with his established pattern of behaviour which seems driven by a pursuit for executive authority. By allowing the court to be used as a stage for the military to flex its muscles, Chaudhry effectively presents himself as a key power broker.
Why clutch at straws
Elections must be held within the next fifteen months. Opinion polls suggest that the government is deeply unpopular. Economic recovery following a major crisis inherited from the previous regime has been feeble, particularly in the industrial sector. Inflation rates have come down but remain in double digits, and inward foreign investment has dried up. The opposition has been successful in portraying the government as corrupt, inept and supplicant to foreign powers, and much of the privately-owned media is hostile to the PPP. On paper, the parliamentary opposition should cruise to electoral victory, without involving itself in power play with the judiciary and the military. After all, providing political space to ambitious judges and generals to weaken the present government will also be detrimental to any incoming elected government.
It is easier to understand the motivations of ambitious judges and generals in trying to destabilise the government. By constantly inserting themselves as guardians and arbiters of state sovereignty, ideological boundaries, and an imaginary ‘basic structure’ of the constitution, these state employees seek to retain or even expand their influence in an otherwise functioning parliamentary system. The question still remains as to why they clutch at straws when the government might be genuinely vulnerable on substantive political issues. The ‘memogate’ has yielded to the military the much coveted scalp of Haqqani, but the issues involved are obscure, and its successful pursuit depends on the mysterious Mansoor Ijaz about whom little is known except that he is acquainted with important people and is not averse to appearing in girlie videos. It would be far-fetched to make a connection between Ijaz’s memo and President Zardari, and even more tenuous to argue that trying to prevent a military coup was somehow an act of treason. The court’s pursuit of 15-year old Swiss corruption charges against Zardari raises an even more obscure matter which has virtually no chance of leading to a conviction. It seems as though the generals and the judges are more interested in throwing the PPP leadership off-balance rather than to allow the electorate to show them the door.
Then there is the possibility that the parliamentary opposition as well as the opposition to parliament are not confident that the PPP-led coalition can be easily beaten by the ballot after all. Politics have moved down to the provincial and sub-provincial levels. This implies that in any particular region of the country, electoral contest will centre on regional issues rather than national grandstanding. In southernPunjab, for example, there is likely to be great interest in the possibility of creating a new ethnic Seraiki province, something that the parliamentary opposition has baulked at while the PPP-led coalition has backed. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa there will be sharp divisions along pro and anti-Taliban lines, while in Sindh political discussion will be shaped by the province’s entitlement to what are regarded as its resources on the one hand, and the negotiation of ethnic heterogeneity and urban-rural duality on the other. Balochistan is in a state of civil strife and here the electoral process itself will be matter of contention. Baloch nationalist who are increasingly dismissive of parliamentary politics have already identified the ‘Punjabi army’ as their oppressor.
The government’s economic management, which might have provided the opposition with persuasive talking points has had a similarly fragmented impact. Urban voters, particularly in north-central Punjab are affected by a decline in growth rates, power shortages and poorly preforming state corporations, and high rates of inflation. Higher agricultural prices, only partly due to government policies, have benefited the agrarian economy across the country with an overdue reversal of the terms of trade between rural and urban areas. The performance of public sector companies is also a double-edged sword, as the PPP can turn around and argue that it tolerated inefficiency as a price for protecting jobs. Electricity shortages are quickly interpreted in regional terms as provinces have become more conscious of their entitlements to resources such as natural gas to whichPakistan’s inefficient power sector has developed an unhealthy addiction.
Given the fragmented polity the PPP’s credo of political reconciliation and coalition building has emerged as a winning strategy. The party has reinvented itself from the proponent of a strong centre to the backward regions’ friend in the centre. Its detractors understand that the widely held impression that the government has been corrupt and inept particularly in economic management – in other words, the incumbency effect — may not be enough to defeat the ruling coalition in a fair electoral contest. Nationalist rhetoric against theUSand other supposed enemies of Islam, and shrill protest about the selling out of national sovereignty by the corrupt PPP and its coalition partners also does not travel well outside of north-centralPunjab. Even if the PPP loses the next election, coalition politics will remain, and any party leading the federal level of government will have to cast itself as a friend of the regions. The future of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan seems more certain now than at any time in recent history precisely because the centre of political gravity has moved down to the provinces and regions.
There are several milestones which if passed smoothly will ensure that the parliamentary system will become virtually irreversible. While general elections must be held within the next fifteen months, half of the seats in the upper house (Senate) are up for election in March. The Senate is indirectly elected by the provincial assemblies and has equal shares from all provinces regardless of population. The current arithmetic of provincial assemblies implies that the ruling coalition will obtain a comfortable majority in the Senate, and the PPP on its own will have around 40 per cent of the seats. Since constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, the PPP will be in a position to block amendments for another two years, even if it were to fare very badly in the general elections. It is widely believed that the parliamentary opposition, which hopes to lead the next government, as well as the state’s military and judicial bureaucracies, would have liked to prevent a PPP-dominated Senate. The PPP for its part may not resist calls for early elections once the Senate elections had been held. The government would be looking to pass its fifth consecutive budget in June, before going to the country.
The process of holding elections also needs to be negotiated and navigated with great care by the parliamentary parties as well as the state bureaucracies. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has been directed by the Supreme Court to discard a large number of entries from the electoral rolls on suspicion that they were ‘bogus’ voters. In fact these were voters whose records had a discrepancy – the most common one being the absence of a national identity card number, or a mismatch between the record of the national citizens’ registry and the electoral rolls. The ECP is currently completing an exercise in preparing new electoral rolls working alongside the national registry which needs to issue identity cards to the large numbers of citizens who do not possess them. According to the ECP the procedural and legal requirements for completing and validating new electoral rolls, while ensuring that voters are not excluded simply because they did not possess an identity card, is likely to take another five to six months.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Supreme Court starts to become more pro-active in shaping the electoral process. Its directives to the ECP for cancelling ‘bogus votes’ was the result of a petition filed by Imran Khan’s PTI, which does not currently have any representation in parliament. As Khan tours the country and attracts traditional patrimonial politicians to his fold, he has also sounded warnings that any election held under Zardari’s watch as president will not be fair, even though the presidency is now a figurehead office with no role in the electoral process. As we approach the timelines for the Senate elections, the budget, and the electoral process, pressure on the government will continue to mount not only from its political opponents, but also on the part of the state bureaucracies. While the main goal of these pressure tactics will be to force the PPP leadership to voluntary cede its advantage, there is always a danger of a more open disruption through judicial fiat. A direct military takeover with or without judicial cover can also not be entirely ruled out given the country’s history, despite the fact that the US and western powers have their own issues with the Pakistani military.
In spite of the ‘national mood’ against the incumbents, however, any overt disruption of parliamentary democracy will unravel quickly. The ability of the political opposition (Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan), and the higher echelons of the state’s military, judicial and civil bureaucracies to act in concert is quite largely due to their shared regional and ethnic power bases. It is the relatively more developed and urbanised region of north-centralPunjab, with a disproportionate share in public employment, which was traditionally a core political region of the country, that is now the main base of the opposition. The elites of this region articulate the ‘national mood’ even though the region represents only around a third of the national population. This paradoxically, also implies that challenges to parliamentary democracy will be interpreted outside the core region as revanchist attacks to be resisted, quite likely along regional and ethnic lines. If the state’s bureaucracies and politicians from north-central Punjabare unhappy with the frying pan of parliamentary democracy, they had better prepare for the fire outside.
Haris Gazdar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is with the Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi, Pakistan.