Sunday February 25, 2024

Principled politics, anyone?

March 12, 2023

When on May 14, 2006 – nearly 17 years ago – the Charter of Democracy (CoD) was signed between Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Mr Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, both were in exile in London. Both had served two truncated terms as prime ministers.

Let’s briefly revisit the elected but severely curtailed periods of both leaders, one now slain and one alive.

Ms Bhutto took oath as prime minister on December 1, 1988. However, after just 20 months in office her coalition government was sent packing on August 6, 1990 by then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan on trumped-up charges of ‘corruption.’

After a general election held in October 1990, Mr Nawaz Sharif took oath as PM on November 7, 1990. Within a year, however, his relationship too turned sour with the president who dismissed the elected government on April 18, 1993. Even though the Supreme Court (SC) annulled the president’s order of dismissal, troubles brewed in the Punjab Assembly with a motion of no-confidence against Mr Wyne, oath-taking of Mr Wattoo as CM, an ensuing legal tussle eerily similar to what transpired in Punjab in 2022, and a failed attempt at federal rule. A deal was famously brokered by the then army chief, facilitating the resignation of both PM and president.

The October 1996 elections were contested in a cut-throat polemical political atmosphere as today with vicious personal attacks against political opponents. The PPP emerged victorious with 86 seats in the National Assembly while the PML-N got 73 seats. Ms Bhutto took oath as PM on October 19, 1993. A new President, Mr Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, was elected on November 13. However, the relationship between the government and the president got sullied and on November 6, 1996, Leghari dismissed Ms Bhutto’s government on the oft-employed charge of corruption, adding imminent economic collapse, attempts to destroy independence of the judiciary, and extrajudicial killings as additional charges. The decision of dissolution of assemblies was upheld by the SC at the time.

For the first time in Pakistan, the February 1997 general election was held together for the national and four provincial assemblies on the same day: February 3. This was also the first time Mr Imran Khan’s PTI contested a general election. The PML-N won 136 seats out of 207 general seats in the National Assembly and the PPP got 18. Mr Nawaz Sharif took oath as PM on February 17, 1997. But the PML-N’s ‘heavy mandate’ of two-thirds majority was mutilated on October 12, 1999 – this time by an outright military coup which suspended the constitution and installed the then army chief as Chief executive.

In this bitter political backdrop, how did two leaders, arch-rivals and political nemeses, agree to talk to each other on a Charter of Democracy? After all, both sides had cheered and orchestrated the ouster of each other’s governments. From 1988 to 1999, we had seen it all – from scathing personal attacks and character assassination campaigns, distrust bordering paranoia, horse-trading and malicious attempts at accountability-cum-witch hunt that threw opponents in jail over one pretext or another.

In fact, this very embittered experience led to the realization that their political opposition to each other was used not just against them but against democracy taking root in Pakistan. From the creation of the IJI to counter the PPP in 1988 to the later splintering of the IJI and that of the Muslim League to tackle the vote bank of the PML-N, two opponents had allowed their political rivalry to be used as fodder against themselves.

Revisiting the 36-point CoD shows a firm intellectual grasp of the political leadership on every issue that has held back the economic and democratic growth of the country. Some of these issues linger, but that is not due to lack of realization on the part of politicians.

The charter demonstrated consensus on the restoration of the 1973 constitution to its parliamentary form, purging it of the infamous Legal Framework Order 2002 and the 17th Amendment; appointment of governors and services chiefs to be made on the advice of the PM; detailed method of appointment of judges to the superior judiciary; greater provincial autonomy, abolishing of the concurrent list and a new NFC Award; replacing politically-motivated accountability under NAB; merger of Fata in erstwhile NWFP; and an independent Election Commission. Six years later, the major part of this agreement was achieved through the 18th Amendment in April, 2010.

The CoD contained pledges on many other areas. Management of civil-military relations got its own mention alongside a Code of Conduct. The two leaders agreed to replace the National Security Council with a Defence Committee of the Cabinet with a permanent secretariat, and while the NSC was disbanded in 2008, a separate National Security Division was created in 2013 under the PML-N government to serve as permanent secretariat to the restructured National Security Committee. The defence budget was to be placed before parliament for debate and approval, agreed the two parties; they began practising it after the PPP assumed power in 2008.

The CoD also underscored the necessity of improving Pakistan’s relations with its immediate neighbours as they pledged to “work towards peaceful relations with India and Afghanistan without prejudice to outstanding disputes.” These have seen limited developments.

The key agreement of the CoD was not to approach unelected institutions to come to power again. “We will respect [the] electoral mandate of representative governments that accept due role of opposition and declare [that] neither shall undermine each other through extra constitutional ways,” vouched the parties. “We shall not join a military regime or any military sponsored government. No party shall solicit support of [the] military to come into power or to dislodge a democratic government,” signed the two leaders.

The Charter of Democracy demonstrates many lessons for political players today: how a serious intent for a dialogue can bring together hostile political opponents to agree on workable solutions to get the country out of an economic and political quagmire. The lesson is not solely for the benefit of the PTI which has continually refused to talk to contemporary political leadership. After having committed the cardinal sin of overthrowing an elected government – with help from its coalition partners including the PPP – albeit by constitutional means, the PML-N is demanding similar ‘judicial accountability’ for Mr Imran Khan as Mr Nawaz Sharif has suffered since 2017.

Apart from instigating a vicious circle that might only appease wounded sentiments from the injustice meted out to Mr Nawaz Sharif, how would this demand help steer the country forward? How would that even be in keeping with the principles espoused in the Charter of Democracy?

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