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Opinion

September 20, 2015

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Pakistan and the Day of Democracy

The world recently observed the International Day of Democracy which was the result of an initiative taken some years ago by Corazon C Aquino, former president of Philippines, when she spearheaded a peaceful ‘people power movement’ to overthrow late Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos who had been in power for nearly twenty years. The day reaffirms the basic principles of democracy, the elements and exercise of democratic governments and the scope of democracy internationally.
On the same day, speaking to a conference of farmers in Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed fears that his opponents were trying to get him dislodged so that ‘they’ could take up the reins of power. He didn’t dwell much into what he meant by ‘they’ and left it for his audience to guess whether he meant the politicians in the opposition or the military whose chief’s posters are getting bigger by the day.
On the same day in South Waziristan, the COAS wore a turban over his military uniform and spoke to a welcoming audience after inaugurating some much-needed development projects. The COAS has worn such headgear earlier also but the oversize silk turban sent politicians into a tizzy with memories going back to another era when General Pervez Musharraf, garlanded with artificial flowers, wore a similar turban in Lahore and was on his way towards ‘enlightened democracy’.
The politicians’ concerns are rather misplaced as the military has no intentions of taking over – for the simple reason that it is not capable of pulling the country out of its present turmoil and any misadventure will only add to its predicaments. But rather than its soldiers scamper over gate of state’s television station or be idle bystanders as in the past, this time around the military has hit on a clever trick – dig an unloaded pistol in the back of the rulers and nudge them to get their act together – except the not so funny part where rulers can’t be sure if the

thing poking their backs is empty or loaded.
In his message on the eve of the International Day of Democracy, former president Asif Ali Zardari expressed his view that the first and foremost demand of democracy is that all state institutions respect the limits imposed on them by the constitution. Interestingly, this particular advice by Zardari has been a consistent and recurring theme. His statement also contained some thoughts about fighting militancy and corruption but it is no secret that his heart is neither into fighting terrorism nor corruption.
Throughout his five-year rule, militancy was at its peak. He didn’t order any operation even after the militants brought the fight closer to Islamabad. The extension in service to the then COAS was widely seen as a ploy to keep the boat from rocking and make hay while the sun shines. Democracy could have been better served if Zardari as supreme commander of the country’s armed forces had taken measures to strengthen its institutions rather than appearing to undermine them all the time.
In academic terms Zardari is right when he stresses that rule of law, restraining oneself from the constitutional limits, transparent and across the board accountability and tolerance to criticism are critical elements that constitute a democracy. But perhaps the best tribute to democracy was paid by the father of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi whose body was washed ashore in Greece when the family tried to escape to Europe from Kobani. When asked why he wasn’t content to stay on in Turkey instead of risking the lives of his family, he said because life in Europe was better.
Life in Europe is better only because all the elements of democracy to which we pay only lip service here are actually practiced there in letter and spirit. Unless that is done in Pakistan also and lives of ordinary people improved, democracy will remain an elusive dream and all these sermons will fall on deaf ears. Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani was probably right when he said that Article 6 of the constitution has lost its relevance. It is unfortunate but quite probable that more articles of the constitution are likely to lose their relevance in the future unless the government of the day puts in sincere efforts to serve its people through greater commitment to democracy.
Before Nawaz Sharif took over as prime minister for the third time, there was widespread impression that corruption flourishes more in the country whenever the PPP is in power. The PPP’s motto ‘democracy is the best revenge’ only furthered that impression as it went about extracting that revenge with such gusto that it left everyone in awe and shock. But to be fair to Zardari, the PML-N government is taking the art of corruption to new heights. The question on everyone’s lips is how democracy in Pakistan can take deeper roots if these two major parties are vying with each other on levels of corruption.
Or how does it help democracy when the two leading political parties show little or no respect for judicial proceedings. If a larger bench of the Supreme Court has taken a decision in the Asghar Khan case, why isn’t justice allowed to run its course? If over a dozen innocent people are shot dead at close range in broad daylight in Model Town Lahore, isn’t it the constitutional duty of the government to initiate criminal proceedings against whoever is responsible?
If the PPP feels that MPA Nawaz Ali Shah has been wronged, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to file an appeal with the Supreme Court rather than the Sindh chief minister and leader of the opposition in National Assembly visiting the convict in jail as a gesture of defiance. In 2010, Zardari had used his presidential powers and granted pardon and remitted two prison terms given to then interior minister Rehman Malik after the Lahore High Court dismissed his appeal against conviction in two corruption cases. How do these gestures help the cause of respect for the judiciary in Pakistan, which is so essential for promotion of democracy?
Or how does finding an easy escape route from the consequences of violation of law or wrongdoing help democracy – like the widespread practice nowadays of powerful people falling sick as soon as they are made to face the law. This is something in which Asif Ali Zardari has been some kind of a trendsetter. This undesirable act is not restricted to politicians only if we recall the famous diversion from an Islamabad farmhouse to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi.
The fact is that the present generation of Pakistan’s politicians and rulers do not care much for democracy and only indulge in empty rhetoric in its praise from time to time. In reality they have all arrived at the autumn of their leadership potential and are swimming against the tide of mainstream public opinion. In the process they are further opening up the distance between themselves and their people but they will be able to read the writing on the wall only if they take off their blinkers.
Tailpiece: Gen Pervez Musharraf recently voiced his support for an extension in service for General Raheel Sharif. Gen Raheel has come a long way from the turbulent days at PMA Kakul in the post-1971 war environment when he lost his much loved elder brother Major Shabir Sharif. Today he is considered the most successful and popular COAS in the history of the Pakistan Army.
If he hangs up his boots in November 2016 after serving his country in the most commendable way, he will undoubtedly be the brightest star shining in hall of fame where photographs of previous army chiefs are displayed. But having come so far, if he falls to the temptation of an extension or an extra star, he will be like the rest of them. General Raheel would do well to remember that sometimes settling for less amounts to achieving far more in life.
The writer is a retired vice admiral.
Email: [email protected]

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