Pakistan’s return to democracy in 2008 was welcomed with caution and optimism. The country’s history of military rules and periods of unstable democracy in between make the return of democracy to be viewed with circumspection.
The trembling completion of the first parliament term in 2013 provided the optimistics some ground to celebrate their optimism for democracy’s future in the country. The lawyers’ movement with the long march by Mian Nawaz Sharif, Memogate scandal and later insistence by the judiciary on the PM writing a letter to Swiss authorities about the then president Asif Zaradari etc were some of the bumps parliament had to bear.
The second term of parliament is facing its share of shocks since the start of term in 2013. Some of them: the unsuccessful trial of General Musharraf, civil-military relations leading to an agreement on a military operation in Waziristan, the long-drawn sit-in by Imran Khan in front of parliament, and now the turmoil over the issue of the Panama Papers leaks.
With all this in the background there are always rumours in the media of the possibility of another military takeover. There were similar rumours of a possible military intervention at the time of the Memogate scandal, again during the sit-in of 2014 and now since the Panama leaks. Concerns about these rumours are only legitimate considering the history of army rule in the country.
The army is perceived by many as the ultimate power which can shape the political landscape of the country. This perception is reinforced by the army getting its way in foreign policy, national security as well as managing to successfully protect its retired generals – including General Musharraf – from prosecution during civilian rule. The political opposition to the government plays with this very strong perception and manages to create mayhem by promoting the idea that the opposition is supported by the army when opposing the government on political issues.
Many ex-army officials who are known to promote the army position in the electronic media start to align themselves with the opposition’s stance and further reinforce the perception of the army backing the opposition’s standpoint.
Army Chief General Raheel Sharif became popular with his firm stand against army intervention during the sit-in of 2014, and his affirmative leadership in the ongoing successful operation against the Taliban and extremist elements in the country. General Raheel Sharif is due to retire later this year and has confirmed that he will not be seeking an extension in his tenure.
The current issue of the Panama leaks, demands for the prime minister’s resignation and judicial commission TORs are again being linked to the extension of the army chief. Some media outlets have even suggested that in case of no extension the government can be ousted and the army may take over; this of course may have no bearing on the truth.
The issues raised by the opposition parties since the reinstatement of democracy in 2008 are not uncommon or illegitimate. In fact most of the issues raised represent the natural role of the opposition in the government. It is the perception of the army backing the opposition stance that is not healthy for political stability in the country.
This shifts attention from the actual legitimate issue, which needs to be addressed in order to bring sustainable democracy and transparent and accountable governance. Government becomes more inclined to save its existence rather than going through a meaningful engagement and political dialogue with the opposition. Issue resolutions through political dialogue can contribute positively and enhance the democratic system.
Pakistan has humongous political, social, economic and geopolitical challenges. The country is still facing major shortages of all domestic and industrial utilities including electricity, gas and clean drinking water. Public health, law and order and provision of security require major reforms.
The endemic and fragmented corruption in all areas of governance is a major hindrance in implementing (scarcely introduced) good policies. Nepotism and elitism in the power quarters are preventing social justice and producing inequalities. The development and efficiency gap between poor areas/districts/regions is growing. And geopolitical challenges with the neighbouring countries need to be addressed.
Political instability will further hinder the much-needed progress towards addressing the major challenges that are affecting the quality of life of ordinary citizens. The country needs political stability and collaborative action by all organs of the state to implement a reform agenda which can help address the issues stated above.
Political stability can pave the way for negotiating a more favourable geopolitical environment. Such stability can only come when the system of governance has no perceived or actual threats of intervention via unconstitutional action. There needs to be an unambiguous clarity in the public perception that democracy is here to stay.
Political opposition and institutional advice for corrective action are a great contribution in furthering a country’s interest. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that the advice/pressure is not perceived by the nation’s inhabitants and other nations as a threat to the democratic system.
The writer is a London-based freelance contributor.