In Pakistan, Slow and Steady Just Might Win the Race

Yes, terrorism is a problem. But Pakistan is making remarkable headway in its transition to democracy.


Amid the suicide attacks, the enforced disappearances, and the sectarian violence, there is another story unfolding in Pakistan — one based on a slow but steady transition to democracy that doesn’t entail the violent political upheavals rocking the Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Yet Pakistan’s "long march" to democracy may well hold important lessons for countries struggling to make a similar shift from a deep-rooted history of dictatorship to democracy. While it’s true that terrorism continues to threaten the progress Pakistan has made toward institutionalizing democratic practices, cooperation on the political front dominates relations between the main political parties. The result is an unprecedented era of political reconciliation and democratic consolidation for the first time in decades.

Pakistan has struggled to establish a fully functioning democracy since its inception in 1947, with successive military dictatorships intervening to quash prodemocracy forces and weaken democratic institutions. 34 of Pakistan’s 66 years have been under military rule. In May 2006, however, the country’s two biggest political parties and long-time bitter rivals united forces for the first time against military dictatorship. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, both in exile at the time, signed the Charter of Democracy. The Charter bound their two parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to "play by the rules" and implement key reforms to strengthen democratic practices regardless of which party won the next election. The agreement marked a decisive turning point, ushering in a new spirit of cooperation based on the mutual recognition that political unity was the only way to end dictatorship and restore democracy.

The Charter was ignored by western diplomats in Islamabad and many western governments, especially the United States, which continued to funnel billions of dollars to General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime. They failed to spot the crucial significance of the extraordinary agreement between Pakistan’s most important political parties, which established a peaceful mechanism for establishing a sustainable transition to a stable government. The Charter appears even more remarkable when viewed against the current gridlock between congressional Republicans and Democrats in the United States. In Pakistan, at least, the Charter showed that two competitive parties were willing to put the public interest ahead of their own.

One western diplomat assured me that the Charter "wasn’t worth the paper it was written on." But both the PPP and the PML-N have remained committed to the Charter’s democratic principles despite major setbacks, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto just before the scheduled 2008 election. Indeed, by voting to oust President Musharraf soon after the parliamentary elections, the newly elected provincial assemblies, dominated by the PPP and PML-N, unleashed a "democratic revolution" and reclaimed their legislative authority without a drop of bloodshed.

The September 2008 election of the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari as president offered further evidence that the PML-N was prepared to accept the PPP parliamentary election victory despite their growing political differences and Sharif’s decision to leave the new coalition government just months after it was formed. In a country where the intelligence agencies routinely manipulate political parties with bribes, threats, and coups d’états, Zardari’s election was a clear sign of Sharif’s commitment to turn a historic corner and embrace the democratic process, even if it meant a five-year stint in opposition after eight years in exile.

In 2009, with a democratically elected parliament and president in office, lawmakers established a special parliamentary committee, consisting of representatives of all the parties in the parliament, to review the constitutional distortions imposed by the country’s four dictators and to propose reforms based on the Charter of Democracy. The year-long laborious effort yielded a political consensus that restored the constitution to the principles of parliamentary democracy on which the country was founded.

The Eighteenth Amendment, passed in April 2010, enabled President Zardari to restore to the prime minister and parliament the constitutional authority that Musharraf had seized as president, enabling him to maintain control of the elected government and turn the country from a parliamentary republic into a semi-presidential state. The Eighteenth Amendment returned the presidency to a largely ceremonial role while restoring the prime minister and parliament’s authority to appoint heads of the armed forces, dissolve parliament, and dismiss an elected government. The amendment also stifles any future undemocratic attempt to overthrow an elected government by making it an act of treason. It also includes a bipartisan process for appointing the chief election commissioner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the head of the anti-corruption authority, and so on. In a country where, for half its history, parliament was forcefully held subservient to the military, the unanimous vote by political parties in support of the Eighteenth Amendment was an extraordinary achievement.

More recent actions appear to confirm the sustainability of the continuing transition to democracy. The 2013 parliamentary elections saw an elected party complete its five-year mandate for the first time and not only pass power peacefully to another party, but also announce its intention to act as a "constructive" opposition. Prime Minister Sharif’s appointment of a Baloch party leader as chief minister of the province of Balochistan, despite internal pressure to appoint someone from his own party, suggests that Sharif recognizes the need for political compromise and cooperation.

The transition hasn’t been completely smooth. Bumps in the road, like the friction between the government and a hyper-active chief justice, for example, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The court’s interference in the schedule of the recent presidential elections also resulted in the resignation of a widely respected chief election commissioner just months after his appointment, as well as a boycott of that election by the PPP and its key party allies. This tug-of-war can, perhaps, be seen in a somewhat positive light as institutions struggle to find their legitimate space in the new democratic order rather than seek the milit
ary solutions of the past. The fact the military didn’t intervene to resolve any of these stand-offs is significant in a country where, historically, the military, supported by many in the judiciary, has used such clashes to seize power.

The recent announcement by the chief of the army that he will step down when his term expires next month is another significant, if small, sign that the balance of civil-military relations is starting to shift. Under General Kayani’s rule, the army made few or no attempts to interfere in many spheres under control of the civilians, like the economy and the constitution. But on foreign and defense policy, while space for civilians has increased slightly, the army still wields a veto. Kayani, generally seen as a democrat, has publicly advised his successor to continue supporting the democratic process. This will depend, in part, on who takes his place and the capacity of the civilian government to maintain good relations with the military while continuing to press for positive change.

The country still faces daunting challenges from terrorism, sectarianism, ethnic unrest, regional disputes, and poverty. Power struggles between the central government and the provinces threaten decentralization. There are troubling signs that Prime Minister Sharif’s commitment to parliamentary supremacy may be more rhetoric than reality now that he’s in office. He rarely appears at sessions of parliament, and his ministers have yet to present any major pieces of legislation for debate. Perhaps most troubling is the government’s lack of a coherent policy on terrorism which continues to take innocent lives throughout the country.

Nonetheless, Pakistan is now better equipped than ever to confront the future armed with a stronger democratic framework that provides a means of resolving political differences. The ongoing peaceful transition to democracy is a stark contrast to the violent upheavals devastating other countries struggling to throw off dictatorships. The unity the PPP and PML-N demonstrated in the Charter of Democracy was profoundly significant and set a democratic tone which showed that strong political parties and political leadership are vital for a peaceful, stable, and sustainable transition from dictatorship to democracy.

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