The road to Raiwind


Zaigham Khan

On September 15 last week, when Pakistan was celebrating the International Day of Democracy, Sheikhul Islam, Allama Professor Dr Tahirul Qadri left for London. His departure indicates that Nawaz Sharif will not be not be hanged in Qisas (retribution) any time soon, and that Imran Khan is left without a crucial ally in his movement to oust the PML-N government. There cannot be better news for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy.
In 2013, Qadri organised his first dharna in Islamabad, at a time when Pakistan was about to hold elections for its first ever transfer of power from one democratic government to another. He shrewdly followed a template being used by protesters around the world at that time to overthrow dictatorships.
This is how The Economist described the pattern: “The people mass in the main square. Regime-sanctioned thugs try to fight back but lose their nerve in the face of popular intransigence and global news coverage. The world applauds the collapse of the regime and offers to help build a democracy.” The dharna, officially titled the ‘Long March’, flopped because Qadri was trying to overthrow a democracy not a dictatorship; the government did not commit any violence and those who gathered there were not ‘the public’ but his own spiritual followers, seeking paradise in the hereafter rather than democracy in this world.
Samuel P Huntington in his famous book, ‘The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century’ gave a classic formulation that is popularly known as the ‘two-turnover-test’. Huntington claimed that a democracy can only be considered stable if the party in power at the beginning of the democratic process loses a fair election and hands over power peacefully. In turn, the new party that has gained power then also has to lose an election and hand over power peacefully, as this shows that all political groups are prepared to play by democratic rules.
This test is quite significant in Pakistan’s context. From the very beginning, Pakistan’s political elite has fought over the rules of the game, leaving no scope for the game itself. The post-colonial civil-military establishment cunningly pitted them against each other and made them wrestle like roosters in a cockfight. The 1973 constitution set the rules of the game but political norms were agreed to only in 2006 through the Charter of Democracy signed by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. It is only because of this document that Pakistan has covered eight years of democratic transition without any major upset.
While the PPP and the PML-N have largely stuck to the democratic norms outlined in the charter, Imran Khan has constantly sought to overthrow the government, mostly with the help of the ‘third umpire’. Behind his unrelenting efforts lies his belief that Pakistan can be redeemed only through his government, not through democratic continuity or institutional reforms.
In 2013, Pakistan passed half the Huntington test when power shifted from the PPP to the PML-N after the former was routed in the elections. Like the seasonal fever that visits poor households every year, Qadri returned for his second dharna in 2014. Though his earlier dharna had turned him into a laughing stock, it had also proved the strength of the method to create hysteria by hijacking the attention of the 24/7 media. This time, his skills, fanaticism and oratory were used to augment Imran Khan’s dharna aimed at throwing the government on allegations of rigging in elections.
Though Imran Khan emerged as one of the major beneficiaries of the democratic transition, nothing less than the PM House could satisfy him. The dharna, officially title the ‘Azadi March’, lasted four months (August 14, 2014 to December 17, 2014) but failed to dislodge the government – though it seriously dented the authority of the civilian setup, forcing it to retreat on the policy front.
Qadri calls himself a Sufi, but the second dharna showed that he could be extremely ruthless when using his spiritual followers for his political objectives. Without the fanaticism and violence of his followers, the dharna could not have come so close to achieving its objectives. As Qadri leaves the scene, it is almost impossible for the PTI to launch a similar assault on its own – at Raiwind or in Islamabad.
Nawaz Sharif is lucky to have Imran Khan as his main rival. However, Khan’s penchant to shoot on his own foot should not be taken as a licence by the government to avoid its responsibilities in consolidating the democratic process. In democratic theory, a distinction is often made between formal democracy and substantive democracy. Formal democracy is the framework of rules and institutions that provide the necessary conditions for people to shape their own lives.
These institutions involve an inclusive citizenship, rule of law, separation of powers (including an independent judiciary capable of upholding a constitution), elected power holders, free and fair elections, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, and civilian control over the security forces.
Substantive democracy is about political equality and the ability of every citizen to participate in and influence the decisions that affect their lives. In the words of Mary Kaldor, a British academic, democracy is a process that has to be continually reproduced, to maximise opportunities for all individuals to shape their own lives and to participate in and influence debates about public decisions that affect them.
Pakistan clearly needs to improve on both counts. Substantive democracy is not possible without strengthening the local governments and democratising political parties.
Unfortunately, the politicians who gave us the 18th Amendment stubbornly refuse to work on the next stage of devolution by sharing authority and resources with local governments. By centralising power at the provincial capitals, they are sticking to the time-tested model of client-based development, aggravating inter-district and regional disparities.
Political parties are unwilling to turn themselves into vibrant and democratic institutions as leaders want to run them like family enterprises. The federal parliament has gone through a significant reform process in the last eight years. During the period of the thirteenth parliament (2008-2013) more legislation was passed than any other period in Pakistan’s recent history. In fact only the 1973 parliament, which passed the current constitution of Pakistan, passed more bills than the 13th parliament.
The situation at provincial assemblies, however, appears quite bleak. The Punjab Assembly, particularly, has been turned into a rubber stamp by the Shahbaz Sharif government where members of treasury are not allowed to utter a sentence without a nod from the party.
Alongside Imran Khan’s post-truth politics and unbridled ambition, governments’ unwillingness to reform remains a major threat to the unfinished democratic transition in the country.