The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's Long March to Democracy

The transition from dictatorship to democracy is never smooth. One need look no furtherthan the set-backs in most of the "Arab spring" countries for proof that overthrowing dictatorship is no guarantee that democracy will follow. The situation can even become worse than it was before, like it has in Egypt,where the unintended consequence of the protests in Tahrir Square is the establishment of another dictatorship that may be more repressive than the one that was so courageously overthrown.

Pakistan has come further than ever in its long march to democracy, but the arc of that transition is currently encountering setbacks that have the potential to derail its eight years of uninterrupted momentum. The military's old game of "divide and conquer" once again threatens the institutional strength of the country's democratic set-up. Talk is rapidly growing of a challenge to the government amid mounting apprehension about the very future of the country.

One of the keys to the early success of Pakistan's transition was the willingness of rival political parties to set aside their own political ambitions and unite around the common goal of restoring democracy for the good of the country.This bold commitment to strengthen democratic institutions, enshrined in the 2006 Charter of Democracy, provided a shared roadmap for the future, which led to unprecedented achievements, including two successive democratic elections, major amendments that strengthened the constitution, the establishment of an independent judiciary, and a lively independent media. 

But in 2014, a democratic drift is eroding the earlier strong commitment to democratic values. Despite his rhetoric, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is doing little to consolidate hard-won democratic gains. Now serving an unprecedented third term in office, Sharif has barely set foot in parliament since he was elected over a year ago. His government also has the unique distinction of not passing a single law during its first year in office. Decisions are instead made behind the closed doors of Sharif's office,without the benefit of transparent public debate or opposition scrutiny.

Although approximately 50,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism, for example, there has been no debate on the subject in parliament. The opposition, the media, and voters are left to glean information from ad hoc public statements;  by various cabinet ministers and officials, which are often contradictory.While the Minister of Interior, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan,  is adamant that the issue will be resolved through dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, the army is mounting increasingly aggressive attacks on militants.The public is confused about who is in charge and parliament is kept entirely in the dark.

Treating public affairs as a private matter diminishes accountability and sends a clear message that parliament -- the purported supreme law-making body in a democracy -- is simply not important.The lack of transparency has needlessly fueled rumors, conspiracy theories, and fears of another military takeover.

The pattern of personal rule the government is pursuing, and its disinclination to take parliament into confidence on key issues, is doing more harm to the system than the rant of militant adventurers, according to long time human rights activist and noted columnist I.A. Rehman.

Instead of complying with democratic norms as the best bulwark against the kind of unwanted "interference" of the past, Sharif recently asked political rivals to wait "patiently" for the next elections in four years, claiming that "the politics of the 80s and 90s won't work now."

Sharif's warning was targeting Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, and his latest threat to rock the democratic system with a massive "long march" challenging the legitimacy of the last election, but it applies just as well to his own style of government, which is also reminiscent of those earlier times."The people do not like their elected representatives to behave like kings" notes Rehman, referring to Sharif's style of personal rule.

Sharif's style is a sharp departure from 2009, when the government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), initiated a parliamentary debate about militant attacks in Swat. Parliament unanimously passed a resolution supporting military action, which provided an opportunity for the public to hear all sides of the issue and for the army to play its due role under the political guidance of civilian authorities.When the successful military operation was undertaken, it was with the full support of parliament and the public.

The country, meanwhile, is drifting toward a 1977-like state, according to PPP Sen. Raza Rabbani, one of the drafters of the Charter of Democracy, who charges that nothing less than the survival of the federal system is at stake: "Making the election commission controversial; questioning the role of the former Chief Justice of [the] Supreme Court; infighting within the media; curbs on media; creating hatred against each other...all these things are interlinked [and] all these remind one of [the] Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) Movement of the 1970s."

Such concerns were heightened last week when the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam and Pakistan Awami Tehreek, parties, former allies of military dictator Pervez Musharraf, held a joint press conference in London to announce the formation of an alliance to overthrow the present system and replace it with what they call "genuine democracy."

Yet the official PPP opposition, despite the growing threat, has limited its focus exclusively to the halls of parliament in an apparent failure to grasp that everything now depends on the capacity of the politicians to mobilize the people who are outside parliament in support of the democratic system.

This has left the field open to Khan, who has bypassed parliament entirely, using the media instead to spread his pro-Taliban message and mount mass demonstrations against the government.

Unlike Khan, neither the governing nor other opposition parties have reached out to the millions who voted for them.They still treat politics as an elite private club for elected members,failing to recognize that a strong democracy includes political activism and public participation between the five-year election cycles.

With this unprecedented era of democratization, there was a unique opportunity to open up and strengthen political parties through a process of internal reform and membership empowerment.Neither of the mainstream parties, however, seized the opportunity to fundamentally change their organizations' internal status quo.

During the four years I worked with political parties in Pakistan, the high level of interest in political activism among rank and file party members was inspiring.Yet party leaderscontinue to ignore the tremendous value of empowering their members.This resistance to sharing power and decision-making is a failure of imagination that isolates the elected leadership, undermines the overall strength of the democratic system, and leaves it more open to unwanted interference.

Pakistan has come further than ever in consolidating its democracy,but these hard-won gains are facing a threat which may not offer a chance to restore them if they are lost."Democratic drift" is dangerous at any time but now,when the country is facing an existential crisis, it is especially so.

The government must strengthen the institutional framework, not ignore it, and democratic parties must go beyond parliamentary chambers to mobilize broad-based support for the democratic set-up. A renewed joint strategy from united democratic forces is needed if the long march to democracy is to reach its logical end.

Sheila Fruman was Senior Resident Country Director for the National Democratic Institute for Pakistan, based in Islamabad from 2006-2010.  She has worked elsewhere in the region, including Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and in numerous other developing democracies.  She is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, Graduate Center at City University of New York.