Why Is Dreaming About A Democratic Pakistan An Intellectual Pursuit?

Why Is Dreaming About A Democratic Pakistan An Intellectual Pursuit?
Umer Farooq writes about a far-fetched idea that a democratic Pakistan is, and illustrates a clear picture of the current political crisis that the country is under-going. He talks about how the power struggle has always been a shift between the military and political parties.

In Pakistani society the struggle for a democratic system is merely an intellectual pursuit. At present we are at a stage in our political history when none of the popular political parties truly stand for democratic norms and principles. Two largest political parties — Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) — campaigned for upholding democratic principles and institutions, while at the same time, their past and present have been tainted with the stigma of collaboration with military-bureaucratic elite - either for paving their way to get into the power corridors or get themselves absolved of charges of various kinds.

During the past four to five years somehow an impression was created that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was now the leader of democratic struggle in the country. This impression was reinforced when Nawaz Sharif after getting ousted from power through a court order toured and mobilized public opinion against the establishment. 

This was coupled with churning out of various conspiracy theories that linked different state institutions in a joint effort to throw Nawaz Sharif out of office. Nawaz Sharif, in fact, didn’t let the opportunity go by — his speech, his body language, his demeanor and his strategy of confrontation, all indicated that he wanted to cash on this impression and in the process attempted to become leader of democratic struggle in Pakistan. 

This proved to be extremely beneficial for him as this strategy earned him readymade allies in the political arena and mass support of urban professionals in his stronghold of Central Punjab. 

Very few people realize and even fewer propagate this political reality that Pakistan urban middle classes have an attachment with parliamentary democracy and its symbols. So both Nawaz Sharif and PPP benefited greatly in the last three parliamentary elections for their genuine contributions to the consolidation of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. 

In the last parliamentary elections both PPP and PML(N) attracted millions of voters to their cause. Their support for parliamentary democracy and its symbols is one of the factors that made them popular among the political families of Punjab and Sindh and the middle classes of urban Pakistan — even when these votes didn’t get them entry into the power corridors in Islamabad.

But this is the story of good times in recent political history of Pakistan — I mean everything was goody good when Nawaz Sharif was visiting his middle class supporters of parliamentary democracy in his stronghold of Punjab to attract votes. Establishment had not yet taken the crucial decision to tinker with the political system and re-presidentialise it as well as move it closer to a unitary state form instead of the federal structure that the founders of the constitution had envisaged for the country.  

The threat level for the political leaders was minimal — you can be contending from behind the bars (as Nawaz Sharif was before July 2018 parliamentary elections) but you can also be granted bail by the courts. This is about to change for the worse.

Establishment’s decision to change the nature and shape of the political system seems to be irreversible and anyone coming in the way or attempting to create an obstacle would be left with very few options to survive. Nawaz Sharif is a classical example.

Perhaps anticipating this situation Nawaz Sharif made his way to London — cozy and comfortable — and not being heard of since. Confrontation and crisis have been one of the main features of his political career. But whenever he confronted a power which was more powerful than him, he always remained blue eyed of equally, or relatively powerful people or institutions. 

First, he confronted President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then the more powerful judiciary with the powers of judicial review in its hand, was backing him. He confronted military dictator Musharraf after 2008 when the latter lost the consensus of top military commanders backing his military regime. 

The dreadful period of Musharraf’s military rule — when the intellectual dreaming about democratic Pakistan were at the mercy of Mushrraf’s intelligence — Nawaz Sharif spent in the comfortable and cozy confines of Royal palaces in Saudi Arabia. 

Lastly he confronted Zardari during a brief crisis over the Punjab government and then he was having a hobnobbing session with the military top brass led by General Kiyani.

There are very credible voices indicating a plan of the establishment to tinker with the federal parliamentary form of political system. Some of the plans’ implementation process is already underway and that includes abolishing the financial restructuring carried out to favor the underdeveloped provinces getting their due share from the resources of the society and state. 

At present, there exists a toxic environment in which free media cannot exist. Political parties, the only mechanism of civil society to manage and represent the public in state institutions, have been rendered useless. Partly, due to cowardly behavior of opportunist political leaders and because of the toxic environment created by the wielders of power in the society.

Three types of popular political parties exist in our society at present, which can and will play some kind of decisive role in shaping the future political direction of the society:  

  1. a) Those which are popular and pro-establishment, this includes PTI, MQM and PML(Q) 

  2. b) Those which are popular and anti-establishment but are not ready to confront the establishment while it tinkers with the political system, these include PMLN, PPP, ANP 

  3. c) Those which are popular, anti-establishment and ready to confront the establishment which include Pashtun Tahufuz Movement (PTM) and Baloch Nationalists

The last type of political groups have been so thoroughly discredited in Pakistan’s mainstream political discourse that the possibility of them playing a legitimate role in future political system is next to impossible. Their genuine, legitimate and non violent struggle for federal parliamentary democracy will be perceived as anti-Pakistan in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi, where most of the chattering classes of our society reside.

And lastly, let me answer three questions, which are: why do dreams of a democratic Pakistan have no popular base in our society at present? And as a corollary, why should Nawaz Sharif no more be considered the leader of the struggle for democratic Pakistan? And lastly, why dreaming about democracy is only an intellectual pursuit in our society? 

The popular political leaders in our society are too timid and socially irresponsible to be entrusted with the responsibility of leading a popular struggle for democracy in the country. If, as the rumors have it, PML(N) and PPP support the repeal of 18th amendment and associated financial restructuring of resources, it would be a major blow to democracy and federal structure of Pakistani state. 

This anti-democratic exercise will be carried out with the consent of popular leaders who should then be considered accomplices of this anti-democratic act. Which would mean that when the chips are down, Pakistani popular political leaders only think about their comforts and hence it is a far-fetched intellectual pursuit.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.