Defending democracy

August 14, 2022

Former US President Trump has termed the US to be akin to a “broken, third world country,” which has become “corrupt, at a level not seen before.” He made this statement...

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Former US President Trump has termed the US to be akin to a “broken, third world country,” which has become “corrupt, at a level not seen before.” He made this statement after the FBI executed a search warrant recently at Mr Trump’s Florida residence in connection with an ongoing investigation relating to him taking classified documents from the White House.

Mr Trump termed this as an ‘assault’ against him which could be possible only in a broken system. The US law requires US presidents to transfer all documents and emails to the National Archives upon leaving office. However in February fifteen (15) boxes of classified national security information were retrieved from Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort which became the start of the US Justice Department’s investigation.

Similar betrayal of democratic values was expressed by former prime minister Mr Imran Khan after the arrest of his Chief of Staff Mr Shahbaz Gill: “This is an abduction not an arrest. Can such shameful acts take place in any democracy? Political workers treated as enemies. And all to make us accept a foreign backed government of crooks,” tweeted Mr Khan. The tweet was a defence of MrGill taken in custody by the Islamabad Police on charges of sedition.

A disclaimer might be added here that any similarity in recent statements of two former leaders denouncing the state of democracy in their particular countries is merely coincidental. However, given the myriad violations of democratic order both are accused of during their respective tenures, one can’t escape noticing how rich laments of weakened democracy appear when coming from them.

Mr Trump is facing as many as seven (7) ongoing investigations including a criminal probe of his role in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol --correctly termed as an unprecedented assault on democracy in the US -- his role in overturning2020 presidential election or Georgia interference, finances and tax returns cases investigating whether Mr Trump and his business engaged in tax and insurance fraud, and the inquiry into potential mishandling of classified documents. Other than the slur against the US democratic system, Mr Trump has termed all investigations to be politically motivated to hurt his potential plans to run for US presidency again.

Even though no official charges are filed against former PM Mr Imran Khan as of now, the recent ECP order declaring that the PTI has received illegal funds from foreign companies and foreign nationals, alleged non-declaration of assets in the Toshakhana case and the sedition case against his chief of staff appear as key legal challenges confronting him.

He chose to defend all three in a public address on August 10. He termed the ECP order in the prohibited funding case as a ploy to ban the PTI and the Toshakhana case as a scheme to knock-him out technically. He argued that successive military chiefs and heads of state and government should be investigated first on their personal use of state gifts before he is held accountable. These cases, he said, are used against him as an attempt towards his character-assassination because his party cannot be defeated in the polls and has the street power to shut down the country.

Though he chose not to openly defend the remarks of his chief of staff, he said that if Mr Gill had violated a law, he should be given an opportunity to present his perspective in court. It is unclear whether he did so as a defence of the stance of his party or in unison with other political leaders when he chose to play clips of fellow political leaders speaking at various times against the political role of the establishment.

Mr Khan did not choose to condemn the vile campaign run against the martyrs of the Balochistan helicopter crash. He seemed to suggest that any accountability of his party should occur only after other parties and leaders are held accountable. Adopting a new position away from his earlier public and vehement trolling and weaponization of the word ‘neutrality’, Mr Khan stated that there was a terrible controversy underway to create a divide between the armed forces and the largest party of Pakistan, PTI, which might result in disastrous consequences for Pakistan.

Political posturing by Mr Khan aside as he only has himself to blame for statements emanating from his party, there is merit in one statement that a wedge between a country’s security apparatus and its political parties should be a cause for grave concern. That Pakistan has already paid a catastrophic price through dismemberment of a part due to this should have resulted in us learning valuable lessons already. Sadly, however, as we approach the 75th anniversary of our independence, there is little evidence that we have utilized any of our hard-learned lessons.

Among major national institutions, the armed forces of Pakistan have historically enjoyed the highest public approval rating as the most trusted institution in the eyes of Pakistanis, and rightly so. Their constitutional role to defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war and when called to serve in aid of civil power requires unwavering faith of citizens. This resolute public trust comes with an equally huge responsibility to be above-board and non-partisan. Their oath to not engage in any political activities is predicated on established democratic principles of separation of powers.

It is only natural then that any overt or covert political involvement and political influence to manipulate a preferred course of action or outcome would result in a gradual undermining of this role regardless of the erroneously-perceived short- or medium-term dividend yield. The national setback in this scenario is both a negative impact on stability and sustainability of the country’s democratic order and the public image of the institution.

Despite experiencing a serious fallout of this for most of our nascent existence, Pakistan is still a de jure electoral democracy with a complex political governance model which has morphed into a de facto power-sharing or hybrid+ governance. Instead of evolving towards consolidation of democracy, we have witnessed regression in our democratic governance despite suffering four (4) military coup d'états.

The way forward, however, is a civilized inter-institutional dialogue in the earnest, within the parameters of the constitution and the laws of the land, aimed at each state institution to work within their constitutionally-demarcated ambit. Resorting to incitement to mutiny and defaming martyrs is not just utterly deplorable and invokes criminal prosecution, but a dangerous and desperate measure that could not be farther away from the result-oriented engagement we require in order to move forward and prosper as a country.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.

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