Pakistan's Delicate Democratic Balance

Supporters of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. Flickr/Creative Commons/Mustafa Mohsin

The Pakistani military is just one factor in a complicated system.

The year 2008 marked the beginning of Pakistan’s third democratic transition. Next year, it will enter its tenth year, as the second civilian government, of this transition, limps toward completing of its five-year term in mid-2018. It will be a symbolic milestone for Pakistan’s evolving democratic process and its checkered constitutional history.

In retrospect, the first democratic transition (1973–77, the era of socialist-populist democracy) took place when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became Pakistan’s prime minister, after the dismemberment of the former East Pakistan (present Bangladesh). In 1977, the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto’s government in a military coup; later Bhutto was given a death sentence in a murder case.

The 1990s, the era of electoral democracy, marked Pakistan’s second democratic transition when four civilian governments (two each from the leading parties, PPP and PML-N) ruled the country consecutively. However, their stints were cut short on one pretext or the other, until then army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law in October 1999.

Like the first two democratic transitions, the third—the era of democratic consolidation—has also been turbulent and prone to crisis. According to Samuel P. Huntington, a budding democracy goes through two stages to become a mature democracy: the power transition and a consolidation phase. Pakistani democracy in its current form can be categorized somewhere between transitioning and substantive democracy. The power transition in Pakistan has been smooth; however, the consolidation phase has been bumpy. The democratic consolidation requires functional civilian institutions, competent bureaucracy, strong and robust opposition, political choice, a vibrant civil society, and better socioeconomic conditions.

Against this backdrop, the failure of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI, Pakistan Justice Party) to topple the government through street agitation in October, and the last-minute intervention by the Supreme Court to avert a confrontation between the government and PTI, has sparked an interesting debate about the future of democracy and the evolving institutional roles of the state pillars vis-à-vis democratic governance in Pakistan.

The debate is between democratic-constitutionalists and pragmatic realists. The democratic-constitutionalist school of thought attributes Khan’s failure to force regime change to democracy’s resilience. On the contrary, the pragmatic realists consider the military’s indirect praetorian approach to be the savior of the system, not the resilience of democracy; the deep state in Pakistan prefers to keep the system weak rather than pulling the plug on democracy.

The approach of the democratic-constitutionalists is bottom-up, focusing on the micro- and meso-level factors of democracy. Meanwhile, the pragmatic realists take a top-down view, looking the macro-level variables.

The democratic-constitutionalist school of thought comprises Pakistan’s civil society, veteran parliamentarians and the liberal intelligentsia. This school has interpreted the Supreme Court’s intervention as strength of the democratic system. Since the revelations of the Panama Papers, Khan has been demanding a high-powered judicial inquiry into the alleged corruption charges, as mentioned in the leaks, of the ruling party and, if he is found guilty, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation. Until the superior judiciary’s intervention, the government was dragging its feet on the Panama Papers inquiry, assuming the issue would fizzle out with time. Khan threatened street agitation if his demands were not fulfilled.

According to this school, the traditional conception of democracy in Pakistan, confinding it to the binary of civil-military relations, has become redundant. Democracy is not a static concept, but rather has evolved, and in 2016, running Pakistan is a different ball game than it was in the 1990s. The military’s constant injection into civilian politics does not mean that Pakistan’s democratic system is not evolving. A fresh approach is warranted, to understand the nonlinear progression of democracy and the social undercurrents that are shaping civilian governance in Pakistan. Moreover, it is also essential to give some agency to the country’s diverse and complicated political process.

Additionally, the devolution of power, with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution, has made federal units in Pakistan more autonomous. Similarly, the local government elections have further strengthened democratic representation and civilian governance at the grassroots level.

With the institutionalization of democratic norms and traditions, the process of democratization will also improve.

On the contrary, political pragmatists contend that overemphasizing democratic continuity and its capacity for self-correction is overly simplistic. Arguably, the Supreme Court’s last-minute aversion of a showdown between the PTI and PML-N might have saved the democracy; however, the repeated assaults on the democratic system are a bad omen. The damage done to the system by the politics of confrontation is real and incontrovertible.