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August 7, 2017

Our nascent democracy


August 7, 2017

The Supreme Court’s decision on the Panama Papers brought in its wake the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and much more. The country not only lost its sitting PM but also momentarily lost its civilian government for the nth time.

Many view this decision as ‘historic’ and that is true in more ways than one. Once again, an elected PM has been ousted following an eerie pattern. It’s a hat-trick for Nawaz Sharif to be unable to complete his term, a first for a sitting PM to be cited as not being ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ as well as a first for the PM’s family to be referred to NAB to probe financial mismanagement on their part.

Of course, all this has pushed the country toward a crisis of leadership and stability. It is both intriguing and perplexing to think that while the law took its course, the PM could have avoided being ousted if he had only used his independent judgment. Many have pointed towards his decision to not calling elections earlier than usual while others believe that he should have resigned after the JIT report. But the former PM was so certain of his innocence that he refused to make an honourable exit.  

With the PML-N leaders standing guard and proclaiming innocence, going to the extent of proclaiming the comeback of the disqualified PM seemed farcical. What does this episode and its unsavoury aspects augur for democracy? Optimists would see the whole episode as part of a process of democratic learning. For the pessimists, this episode points toward a deeper malaise and an undemocratic political culture.

A dismal aspect of the whole affair is the role of parliament or the lack thereof. Parliament seemed to be an unconcerned onlooker. Did the legislative branch have a role to play?  

Why was the PML-N not keen on picking a party leader as PM when this was coming? The whole country sensed a crisis brewing but the Sharif clan. Why did the party concur to pick another Sharif as a replacement of Nawaz Sharif? All this is allowed to happen because a democratic culture has not yet taken root.

Is there an alternative ‘leadership’ available in any of the parties with the exception of the JI? Parties are identified through their supreme leaders who seem indispensable. This is what makes democracy in the country a half-baked and sham enterprise and, therefore, we continue to experience jolts like the current predicament.

The attitude of PML-N leaders is a stark reminder of the dismal features of Pakistan’s democratic dispensation. During the JIT proceedings, a handful of ministers would be present in court and later they would address a press conference to defend the PM.

Political parties and their leaders are mistaken in thinking the elections that bring them into parliament make the system democratic in nature. Practically no effort is made to introduce democratic values into the system.

Party stalwarts from affluent backgrounds and secure constituencies who have Western educations are shy to come forward and spell out democratic norms in front of the party leadership. This explains the indispensability of the Sharifs for the PML-N and for almost all other parties. This was not the democracy envisaged by the founding fathers.

After Nawaz Sharif, the party’s mantle is said to fall on another Sharif. Is this not a form of dynastic politics? How do the Sharifs and the party justify this?  

A positive aspect of the whole affair is the growing public awareness and concern over the ‘businesses’ of the leaders and the need for accountability. This is now a test of the new administrative setup. 

It is unfortunate that Nawaz Sharif did not learn from his past experiences and mistakes. We can only hope that the new PM will prioritise the national interest and take steps to strengthen the institutions, promote rule of law and pave the way for free elections. This would produce a democratic culture that remains at its nascent stage.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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