Lawmakers more suited to confrontation and blame-games have consistently lacked commitment to strengthen the basic functions of the state
For the past several years, a common lament from Pakistan’s political class has been one of Parliament being sidelined, with its all-important legislative mandate being all-but subsumed by presidential ordinances, rendering as nonexistent any debate on matters of great importance. This is not a new complaint—but the governance style of the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has brought it into much sharper view than at any earlier point in the country’s checkered democratic past.
Writing for web portal Citizens Wire on June 28, 2020, Saeed Shafqat, professor and founding director of the Center for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College Lahore, summed up some of the malaise among Pakistan’s lawmakers: “The parliamentarians in Pakistan do not show commitment to strengthening the two pivotal functions of the Parliament: regulation and oversight. They cannot protect citizens’ rights and strengthen welfare functions of the state with vigor and conviction. Obsession with authority and executive superiority is so ingrained that upon joining the Parliament, parliamentarians support policies that strengthen authoritarian attitudes rather than promote democratic norms, values and respect for law or tolerance for dissent and political opposition.
“Strengthening Parliament entails deliberating on policy issues, harmonizing competing interests through conciliation and consensus. Unfortunately, this process has been swapped by confrontation and blame game eroding its credibility. In a parliamentary democracy, the elected leaders are expected to synchronize the expectations of their support groups and others.”
Defamation as policy
Under the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government, the homo pakistanicus seems to have declined in quality as the nation succumbs to a politics of vituperation. Scores of “advisers” and “spokesmen” are employed by Prime Minister Imran Khan to heap daily defamation on the opposition, which in turn has bred its own battalion of badmouthing humanoids spewing defensive rhetoric. In 2021, democracy is equated by its elected representatives to a chaotic abdication from popular sovereignty.
What is at the root of this dysfunction? Is it the culture of an Islamic state, burdened with ideology, where it loses sight of representation in the face of charisma, which actually undermines the “modern” stimulus of creating popular governance based on the will of the people rather than ideology? Is it the stubborn tendency of first accepting democracy, then making it subservient to divine law as expatiated by the cleric that every government keeps on a leash for the sake of legitimacy?
Problems with democracy
Why are so many Islamic states unable to run democracy for long enough to get used it and line up their ideological compulsions behind it? Out of the Arab Spring of 2010 the Arabs got nothing but chaos and no “democracy” survived for more than a few months. Miraculously, only Tunisia survived and it looked as if the Tunisians were the only Muslim nation in our times to suffer the representative institutions of democracy and allow it to go on.
It didn’t take long for ideology to show up there either. Freedom soon meant scenes of preaching, protesting, and at times, violence. Before the Arab Spring, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular by its undemocratic rulers. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighborhoods. An Islamist group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post.
The New York Times wrote in 2019: “In recent years, the Tunisian public has become disillusioned with democracy for its failure to improve the economy. Meanwhile, governing elites have pursued a series of problematic laws and measures indicative of democratic backsliding.” Pakistan, too, became habituated to disillusionment with democracy and welcomed “intervention” laced with ideology. The pattern was thus set: give three or four years to chaotic democracy, then relieve yourself with a decade of “discipline.”
Pakistan’s bad past
Mahboob Husain, associate professor at Punjab University, in his 2019 book, The Parliament of Pakistan: A History of Institution-building and (un)democratic practices (1971-1977), has collected scholarly opinion on the decline and fall of Parliament—read democracy—in Pakistan. Why are Pakistani institutions not strong? Why has the Parliament remained incapable of being acknowledged within the country’s political system, despite being the only representative body for the public?
Shuja Nawaz highlighted how the political circumstances caused military intervention in politics at different instances. He argued that rapid development of the military halted the growth of the political system, and that leaders made no attempt to redress the power imbalance between the institutions of state and the Army. He also observes that it is the power imbalance that converted the Army into a power center, and that politicians invited the Army tor the arbitration of their disputes, which exposed their weaknesses to the military. U.S.-based Shuja Nawaz in 2020 was to launch his book The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter U.S. Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood in Pakistan but was asked to lay off; so he went back home without collecting the kudos he deserved for writing a “revealing” book.
The invisible hand
Author Ayesha Siddiqa, similarly compelled to live in the U.K., has analyzed the internal and external dynamics of the military’s gradual power-building in her books, examining the impact it has had on Pakistan’s political and economic development. She shows how the military has gradually gained control of Pakistan’s political, social, and economic resources and how this power has transformed Pakistani society. Siddiqa has tried to search for answers to questions of whether democracy has a future in Pakistan, and why external players have dominated the country’s power politics.
Ayesha Jalal, meanwhile, focuses mainly on the first decade of Pakistan’s history to show how politicians at the center lost power, prestige, and authority to the military and bureaucracy. She argues that by the time Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in October 1951, the military had played an important, if not a dominating, role in the formation of the policy for Pakistan. By April 1953, the bureaucratic-military axis had wrested the balance of power from politicians and deposed them entirely in the coup of 1958.
Khalid B. Sayeed, while observing the control of the bureaucracy over the political system of Pakistan, commented: “The Government of Pakistan might be described as a pyramid carved out of a single rock, and the civil servants had captured the apex of the pyramid. Below the apex are several layers of authority descending from the secretariat level to the base of the pyramid, the district administration.”
Big leaders vs. parliament of small men
Author Mahmood adds: “The role and growth of legislatures in Pakistan has not been given sufficient space. Some writers have focused on the role of individuals in Pakistani politics, while others have highlighted the political history of Pakistan. Scholars have undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the political history of the country but have not focused keenly on the analysis of parliamentary history of Pakistan. Even researchers who have focused on the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto era lave not provided sufficient information on the role of Pakistan’s first directly elected Parliament.”
The executive, backed by bureaucracy, has frequently bypassed Parliament. By and large, such actions weakened Parliament. Although other factors were important, it remains a fact that the weaknesses were inherent in the institution of Parliament during the Bhutto era, which consequently brought about its unfortunate and tragic demise.
Conclusion: no hope
Author Mahboob Hussain came to the following conclusions after surveying the history of an institution that was repeatedly booby-trapped: “In fact, the working of the Parliament assumed such a mechanism in which the opposition parties had little room for expressing their free will, or exercising freedom of speech. It was generally perceived by the parliamentarians that Bhutto had assumed an authoritarian character and was controlling the affairs of the Parliament. Therefore, when the rigging took place on a small scale (especially locally), it was perceived as an outcome of government command. The negotiations to address the issue between the government and the opposition parties were prolonged because both of them had failed to develop a democratic culture in the Parliament.
“I posit that the internal weakness of the parliamentary parties within and outside the Parliament wrought about the failure of the system in Pakistan. The big opportunity presented itself yet again through the political parties representing the Parliament because of their vested interests, and because of the failure of the Parliament, as an institution to promote a more democratic culture in order to resolve political issues.
“The political parties had failed to develop a political culture. As a result, the Parliament began to weaken despite its marvelous take-off in its first phase when it framed the Constitution. In fact, the decline in the efficiency of the institution of the Parliament provided reason to the military administration (such as General Zia’s) to topple the elected government of Pakistan in 1977, and subsequently, take Z.A Bhutto to the gallows. Had the foundations of the institution of Parliament been strong enough, no other institution not even the military would have been able to impose martial law for extended periods of time.”
Decades after the era of Bhutto and Zia, the sidelining of Parliament has now become commonplace. It is little wonder that the common man of Pakistan finds little hope of relief from their elected representatives—and is willing to look elsewhere when times get tough.