The summer of Pakistan’s discontent

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By Adnan Rehmat
Pakistan is a constitutional federation by design and a parliamentary democracy by function. This structure is the defining characteristic in the constitution ratified by parliament in 1973 – the manifestation of a rare political living consensus in a traditionally fractious policy.
This defining characteristic, however, has always been vulnerable to an extra-constitutional “doctrine of necessity.” Twice since the constitution was ratified, martial law was imposed – during the times of General Ziaul Haq (1977-88) and General Pervaiz Musharraf (1999-2008). In both cases, the constitution was suspended and its popular participatory parliamentary character changed to that of an unpopular unitary presidential system. And both times, political resistance led to the restoration of the federal parliamentary form.
In this way Pakistan has always see-sawed between an overtly centralized governance structure, which is preferred by the military, and a soft federation comprising empowered provinces, preferred by the people and political parties.
Last month, a major political controversy emerged in Pakistan when powerful individuals seemed to indirectly question the landmark 18th Amendment of the constitution, which aims to consolidate the federal parliamentary structure of the state by politically and financially empowering the federating units: the provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. It raised concerns about whether elections scheduled for the summer might not go ahead.
News reports claimed that during a meeting with senior journalists, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa allegedly expressed reservations over the 18th Amendment as part of what was dubbed the “Bajwa Doctrine”. This hit a raw nerve, considering that the four times in its 70-year history the country was under military rule it was presidential in nature, while the rest of the time the leadership was parliamentary in form under civilian rule. Was Pakistan heading back to the future, to a traditionally unpopular presidential form again?
The timing of this reported new “doctrine of necessity” fueled political jitters, as the current five-year term of the National Assembly ends in May – only the second time in seven decades it has not been interrupted – and new elections are due within 150 days.
Soon, another powerful voice – that of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan – was reported to be hinting at a delay in elections. Inevitably, rumors abounded of a postponement of up to two years, and of extraordinary powers being granted for a non-representative interim government to suspend the constitution and revert back to a unitary presidential state. After several days of unnerving delays that prompted fears and predictions of doomsday scenarios, the military and the judiciary stemmed the rumours and issued clarifications that the 18th Amendment, guaranteeing a participatory parliamentary system, was not going to be abandoned, and that there would be no delay in the elections, thereby helping to calm frazzled political nerves. The rumors of an unraveling of a fiercely democratic period – the longest uninterrupted period of its kind in Pakistan’s history – might have fizzled out but suspicions about the sustainability of the health of federal parliamentary democracy linger. For instance, the government and opposition have to nominate consensus federal and provincial caretaker governments in the next 50 days but they are not even on talking terms, after a bruising battle last month for domination of the Senate during which the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif lost out to a combined opposition of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), despite having numerical superiority.
If they do not agree on consensus candidates for caretaker prime minister and chief ministers, the task will fall to the Election Commission or the Supreme Court – both the realm of judges. PML-N alleges that PPP and PTI are in cahoots and indirectly supported by the judiciary and the military. PML-N is in direct confrontation with both the judiciary and the security establishment. There is also a discernible rise in the calls for the independent National Accountability Bureau – mostly populated by retired military and judicial officers – to initiate political-corruption investigations, primarily against leaders and supporters of PML-N, but also now being extended to other parties. The parties in the National Assembly are already in a deep confrontation with the Election Commission over redefining electoral boundaries, which might adversely affect the electoral chances of parties in the summer elections.
The overall political environment reeks of manipulation and systemic vulnerability, which places the predictability and transparency of elections, and subsequent transfer of power, in doubt. Even among the political parties there is now talk of the possibility of a hung parliament, which would prevent it from undertaking the deep political reforms that all parties promise to consolidate the federal parliamentary structure. The next few months will determine how Pakistan will be governed for the next decade. The summer of Pakistan’s discontent is here.
(Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interest in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1)