The constitution of Pakistan is being re-engineered again. Well, one must not be surprised or cry about this activity, as this has been a trend in the ruling system of Pakistan since the first peace of document “Objectives Resolution” was produced on March 12, 1949. Though the ‘causes‘ and the ‘needs of the time‘ are given whenever this poor document is altered but the fact of the matter remains the same that every ruler has used the constitution to control the situation in their favour and remain in power.
To understand the shortcomings in the governance and the democracy in Pakistan, one must find explanations for the weaknesses in political tolerance and identity. Analytically, there appear to be sets of reasonably autonomous and enduring beliefs and values within Pakistan that have important consequences in the societal and ultimately political spheres. Popular expectations of authority, in particular toward those who govern, must be understood and presumably altered if Pakistan is to realize the kind of system that permits a sustainable democracy. Legal provisions and better people seeking public office are important, but progress in building civic virtue or civic spirit will also have to occur. In the absence of such a culture, factional anarchy and authoritarian rule remain thrive.
Historically, the political culture in Pakistan is a strong product of its past that links to the pre-partition British Rule. What Pakistan’s leaders knew best from this inheritance was the so-called viceregal system that made little or no provision for popular awareness or involvement. The system was designed to rule over a subjected population and intended to keep order and collect taxes. In fact, what the British bequeathed was often a contradiction between theories of governance and their practices. Ideals of representative government and equality before the law were incomplete transformations. The territorial issues and border conflicts with India, the socio-cultural differences within the country, struggle for a share of power between the states and the early death of the founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah are those realities which not only politicized the policy-making elites and their willingness in introducing the fair democratic procedures but also encouraged the non-democratic elements including the army. Consequently, even after half a century the country could not get cleaned from the feudal, tribal and punchayat systems and sectarian segregations and the public has been left untutored in the kind of vigilance usually needed to hold political leaders accountable.
Pakistan was without a formal, written constitution until 1956. The democratic myths that so often sustain a system were thus only weakly instilled, and precedents were created that undermined those few parliamentary and democratic norms that could be drawn upon. It did not help that in the early years non-party prime ministers were appointed by the head of state rather than by those who had to appeal to an electorate. Mass involvement in politics, if defined by rallies and periodic opportunities to vote, certainly increased over the years. Street demonstrations helped to bring down governments, namely Ayub’s in 1968, Yahya Khan’s in 1971, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s in 1977. Yet while these actions strengthen feelings of efficacy, none can be easily equated with democratic processes.
The weakness of democratic practices in Pakistan can be explained in many ways. Some observers stress constitutional and electoral provisions among institutional factors said to have undermined responsible and responsive government. Others point to the quality of Pakistan’s leadership over most of Pakistan’s history, namely, that Pakistan has been let down by unprincipled political figures motivated by raw ambition, material gain and vested interests.
The subsequent education of people to accept democracy through meaningful participation in their political affairs is minimal. Without wide public awareness and an effective public opinion, the political system gives wide berth to ambitious and corrupts political leaders. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the two times democratically elected prime ministers, are the perfect examples of the corruptions at the leadership level. Instead of including a broad citizenry in the political process, power is concentrated in the hands of an elitist bureaucracy and over-ambitious military. The country’s semi-feudal system with its sets of obligations and hierarchy provided similarly inhospitable soil for building a democracy. The traditional power brokers, the wealthy, large land-holding families, are prepared to give their allegiance to anyone who promised to protect their material interests and way of life.
The civilian government succumbed to military rule that sought to legitimize itself with the public by attacks on democratic ideals and political institutions in hopes of leaving them in disrepute as well as decay. Despite the revival of democracy from time to time, it is predictably held in suspicion. One of the tenets of civil society, the concept of a legitimate opposition, naturally won little acceptance among competing political elites or within the larger public. These outpourings marked a breakdown in law and order, and reflected above all an absence of trust in authority. Such anomic movements may have heralded demands for better representation but in themselves were more the signs of frustration and anger than of belief in a more pluralistic, tolerant political system.
The election of 1970, the first to be held on the basis of universal suffrage, appeared to be a watershed for democracy. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto -who was the creation of a military ruler, Ayub Khan – provided the strongest hope for a politics that would involve the masses and socialize them to democratic and socialist ideals. The mass mobilization of the electorate by his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) succeeded in communicating with many rural voters. People listened to Bhutto and other political leaders not only at rallies but over radio and television. The issues of the day were articulated forcefully and clearly, such that voters had meaningful choices to make. And these masses demonstrated that they could throw off, if it really served their interests – the feudal assumptions that usually shaped their attitudes and actions. Yet rather than build up his popular movement on the democratic ideals of supremacy of the people, in power Bhutto shed much of the regime’s populist ideology and strongly personalized his rule rather than working through participatory institutions and educating the public to their value. By his 1977 re-election campaign, he had come to rely on feudals and discarded many of the political allies who had stood with him earlier. Above all, Bhutto had failed to deliver the fair governance and a true democracy. While he had opened up for the future the possibility of more participatory politics, the civic virtues that would be needed to buttress it were in the end discredited.
Pakistan could indeed become a crucible for determining whether extensions of democratic practice are likely to provide a successful means of accommodating militant Islamic political movements. The country’s experiences suggest that militant Islamic parties may be moderated when given a democratic option – an honest opportunity to compete. The popularity of Islamic parties in many cities and towns, according to this reasoning, is largely of a protest variety, coming from the denial of a more open political process. However, many analysts also seriously question the compatibility of Islamic doctrines with more liberal conceptions of democracy. Very likely the best reason to insist on the appropriateness of democratic values and institutions is that, from an ideological-constitutional standpoint, democracy does not represent an alien goal. Pakistan was founded on many of these precepts, and as ideals they continue to resonate widely. Such basic ideas as representative government and rule of law remain part of the Pakistani society’s aspirations for itself. To be sure, there has been a rejection at the emotional level of some aspects of western culture and disgust with secular political institutions. Replacement with authentic Islamic institutions is the widely accepted ultimate objective. The kind of civil society and underlying culture appropriate for Pakistan should not be expected to mimic western experiences. Any democracy in Pakistan will have to take into account certain Islamic prescriptions and other legacies. Experiencing and mixing western democratic system with Islamic laws will continue to create more loopholes in the ruling mechanism.
In general, opportunities for a fair governance, true democracy and civil society in Pakistan can only flourish when democratic practices are allowed to prevail under the supremacy of unchanged constitution. The repeated dismissal or overthrow of elected regimes, alterations in the constitutions that suit to existing ruler, leaves no positive memory and little chance for institutions to adapt and supportive values to root.
Though the elections sometime are tainted by design or overzealous officials, the regular elections will ultimately provide democratic practices to the contestants in which losers accept defeat and winners are magnanimous in victory, the greater the chances for an electoral process capable of surviving inevitable challenges. The inefficient and incapable politicians may continue to participate and seek power but the people of Pakistan will also learn and understand better the democratic values and responsibilities over the period.
The writer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and a political analyst.