A test of democracy vs “working” institutions

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At critical junctures in history when we have been asked to choose between law and order, we have chosen order at the expense of the law. Are we sliding towards that familiar juncture again?

From Panama to the Faizabad dharna to the Balochistan meltdown and now the PAT-led ‘grand’ alliance, the universe seems to be conspiring to bring the PML-N down or weaken it to a point where it can’t win a significant presence in parliament in Election 2018. What if the universe fails to realise its goals while staying within the realm of the constitution?

Have we come all this way to risk another PML-N government in the saddle till 2023 with Nawaz Sharif calling the shots from Jati Umra? Panama hurt NS and the label of ‘Godfather’ and being corrupt sticks to him like tar in view of all those who don’t like him or vote for him. But what about those who do? How many of those who voted from him in 2013 will be pulled away due to Panama? Has the Barelvi vote, which was in the PML-N’s camp, eloped post-Faizabad and will it swing the elections in Punjab on seats with less than a 10,000 vote victory margin?

Balochistan doesn’t fit squarely within Pakistan’s mainstream politics. It is still a land of sardars, electables and the establishment (where lucre has more pull in the political theatre than some other places). Those who formed the 21-member PML-N parliamentary party flocked together because the PML-N was in power. Mainstream parties have no committed voter base in Balochistan (only religious and nationalist parties do). And so, in 2018 voters won’t penalise those who deserted the PML-N. But Punjab, with a strong PML-N base, may not be fit for use of the Balochistan model.

Operation Balochistan will cost the PML-N a few seats in Senate. It will lead the expedient Punjabi electable to conclude that the rupture between the PML-N and the establishment is complete (if they hadn’t already read the writing on the wall?). But have Panama, Faizabad and Balochistan inflicted irreparable harm on the PML-N? The jury is out. But if polls, by-elections and the opposition’s show in Lahore are indicators, the PML-N is down but not out. NS is wounded, but still alive, kicking and also toxic. Will the conspiring universe just shrug its shoulder and settle down?

Turn on the TV any evening and you’ll hear chatter about the Bangladesh model; a government of technocrats; an extended caretaker setup to cleanse the Augean stables; a reformer who will save us from corrupt and ineffectual politicos; how we are a plutocracy or a society unfit for representative government; and how a ‘controlled democracy’ is the thing for us. Notwithstanding claims of how the skies are caving in and how the ‘system’ is broken, the refrain we hear is that the time for direct military rule is over.

If the system is indeed broken, how does another election that will throw up the same faces help? The foul-mouthed Rizvi and his gang camped at Faizabad reduced the writ of civilian institutions to a farce. What will now inject public confidence back into the system? We are so polarised as a polity at this point that the possibility of any election result being accepted by all contestants is grim indeed. So who in the political arena will stand as a bulwark against the praetorians, should they wish to (or find it necessary to) assume direct control?

The best case for many seems to be a rickety coalition led by IK. But IK, egged on by Sheikh Rashid, strengthens the skies-caving-in narrative (and more so this Wednesday when he hurled abuse at the parliament he is a part of and wishes to use as a vehicle to assume power in 2018). If he doesn’t emerge as the PM-hopeful post-Election 2018 or realises that he isn’t likely to even before the election, will PTI take a chance by staying on the right side of the umpire or standing against it in defence of the system that IK despises?

What about the PPP? The PPP’s political domain has shrunk to Sindh. Will the expedient Zardari-led PPP, with its new Nawaz-is-a-security-risk mode of politics, stand up against political engineering if Sindh is left alone as its bailiwick? Will purging Punjab of the PML-N not open the political space that the PPP could also hope to capture? The Zardari-led PPP sides with anything that promises a shake-up of the PML-N in Punjab, even if that means playing second fiddle to TUQ. Will this PPP fight for the continuity of the political process as a matter of principle?

And what about the PML-N? NS fell on the establishment’s sword in 1993 and 1999. He believes that he has once again been ousted by design, and is fighting with all his might at the moment. What if he concludes that engineering from behind the curtain has worked and, after suffering disgrace at the hands of the judiciary, he might be discredited at the polls? If he is ousted, he survives politically and whenever democracy returns his daughter will be a key candidate for the top job. If he must lose, doesn’t he look better losing to the establishment?

What else will prevent a direct military rule in Pakistan? The post-9/11 security has trumped all else, including democracy as a value – Egypt and the Middle East being cases in point. Our relations with the US are at a breaking point. The aid that has been cut might not hurt much. But what happens when we go back to international lending institutions and the US throws a spanner? The only way to salvage relations will be to work with the US on the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. And that is something no civilian government in Pakistan can deliver.

Our politicos have left themselves no policy space to make good with the US. But relations can easily be reset by the military, which has a monopoly over defining what is in our national interest and what isn’t. Will the US bat an eyelid if the military takes over and promises to give the US some face-saving in Afghanistan? Will the Saudis get upset with the one institution they can lean on to pursue their empire ambition in the Middle East? Will China care who runs Pakistan so long as CPEC remains secure and on track?

On October 8, 1958, Ayub emphasised that: “we kept severely aloof from politics…let me announce in unequivocal terms that our ultimate aim is to restore democracy but of the type that people can understand and work”. On March 24, 1969, handing over the reins to Yahya he wrote: “calling the assembly in such chaotic conditions can only aggravate the situation… It is beyond the capacity of the civil government to deal with the present complex situation and the defence forces must step in”.

On July 5, 1977, Zia said that: “it must be quite clear to you now that when the political leaders fail to steer the country out of a crisis, it is an inexcusable sin for the armed forces to sit as silent spectators”. In 1999, Musharraf claimed that: “the choice before us on October 12 was between saving the nation and the constitution. As the constitution is part of the nation, I chose to save the nation…This is not martial law, only another path toward democracy”. The army chief has undoubtedly expressed commitment to the necessity – and continuation – of the democratic civilian setup. But if it were another army chief or a chief with a different mind, do we honestly believe there would be no room for another uplifting ‘my dear countrymen’ speech?

We have an independent judiciary whose suo motu jurisprudence inadvertently fuels the broken system narrative. Many legal minds agree that, in its activist zeal, the SC overreaches into the executive’s domain, which is then justified on the basis of exigency. But that is a slippery slope. If we can justify overreach by one institution in the name of necessity, why can’t we justify that by another? We do have an SC judgment though that declared Musharraf’s second coup to be treason. Can this or the nuisance causing Musharraf’s non-trial deter a military takeover?

Here is the bottom line: the system hangs by the ambition and convictions and belief of both the army chief and the chief justice. The year 2018 will be a testing year for democracy and rule of law. May both chiefs pass the test – as they claimed they would.

The News