Election challenges: Future of democracy in Pakistan


By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
Pakistan’s democracy will undergo a major test of endurance over the next four months. The five-year term of the National Assembly, the lower house of the parliament, ends on June 1, 2018. The previous two National Assemblies immediately before the current one also completed their tenure. This is being viewed as a positive development so far as the prospect of democracy in Pakistan is concerned.
However, a critical appraisal of the five-year term of the current National Assembly finds that it “muddled through” one crisis after another, facing uncertain political conditions. Pakistan’s democratic experiment shows a wide divergence between democratic theory and the poverty of democratic culture. The political system faced major challenges because of escalating political polarization and attempts by each competing political interest to manipulate democratic institutions and processes to obtain positive outcomes at any cost. This undermined the quality of democracy and it poorly delivered basic services to the common people.
Nevertheless, the democratic process managed to survive and this is expected to continue. Pakistan now faces the key question of whether democracy is only a power game to be played among the powerful elite in a society, or whether it should serve ordinary citizens by establishing liberal constitutionalism, the rule of law, good governance, equality of all citizens with fair opportunities to earn a living, and the promotion of socio-economic justice.
This question is important because Pakistan’s democracy will soon go through new general elections. Four major challenges will determine the quality of democracy in the country after the election.
Firstly, to what extent do the major political parties view the next general election as fair, free and a genuine opportunity for the people to elect their representatives? The quality of the elections will be determined by the equality of opportunity to all competing political parties to access the voters, the role of the state machinery and state bureaucracy, the nature of the election campaign, security arrangements and the affairs of the polling stations on the voting day.
Secondly many political leaders are entertaining doubts over whether the elections can be held on time. They feel that a set of domestic factors, especially the drawing up of new electoral constituencies in view of the provisional results of the 2017 population census, might cause a delay.
There is also a weather factor. June and July are extremely hot months. The rainy season starts in mid-July and continues until the end of August. Pakistan experiences floods in August or early September. It might be difficult to hold the elections in July or August due to rains and floods. Never in Pakistan have general elections been held during these months.
There are also people and groups that favor the completion of investigations and legal action to hold politicians accountable for corruption and misuse of state resources before the elections are held. No major political party favors this.
There is hardly any leader or party that would favor a long delay in holding the elections. However, it seems that they would not mind them being put on hold for two or three months so that the above issues, especially the new constituencies, are addressed effectively.
There are precedents for the delay of elections, even beyond 60 or 90 days. In 1988, the general elections were held long after the 90 days deadline. In 2008, they were postponed for one month after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007. Article 254 of the Constitution provides legal cover for any delayed elections.
Thirdly, the most critical issue is the selection of non-partisan caretaker governments, at the federal and provincial levels, for the interim period between the end of the tenure of the National and Provincial Assemblies and the installation of new governments after the elections. The duration of such a caretaker government is about three months. Given the current polarization between the The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the opposition parties, they may not be able to agree on a caretaker government. The Election Commission will then decide the issue.
Fourthly, Nawaz Sharif and some members of his family are facing trials in the Accountability Court for corruption and money laundering. If the judgments go against them, and some other PMLN leaders come under financial scrutiny by the National Accountability Court, the party will be isolated. Some of its leaders would like PMLN to boycott the general elections.
Given the track record of the Pakistani political system in moving from crisis to crisis, it will manage to cope with any new challenges. Its experience of “muddling through” the troubled times will keep the democracy going – although its quality is likely to be poor.
(The author Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst. Twitter: @har132har)