The Evolving Democracy Of Pakistan

August 26, 2011

Pakistani politics can be infuriating, petty, violent and often downright incomprehensible. So it is easy to miss what is actually quite a remarkable transformation in the way it governs itself. For perhaps the first time in its 64 years of existence, Pakistan is trying to figure out in detail how to make democracy work.

In a country traditionally dominated by the centralising authority of the military, the government which took office in 2008 is devolving power to the provinces. It is talking about breaking up Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and traditional recruiting ground of the army, by creating a new Seraiki province in south Punjab. It is extending some political rights into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by reforming the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations, a British colonial-era system designed to control rather than govern the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

In other words, it is introducing into the system mechanisms which, in theory at least, make it easier for people to negotiate their disputes with the state without taking up arms. By decentralising, it could also become harder for the army to launch a military coup (though it currently shows no inclination to do so), thus beginning the process of making democracy irreversible. And perhaps most importantly, it offers a way of accommodating Pakistan’s ethnic diversity.

As Pakistani columnist Mosharraf Zaidi wrote this month, “decentralisation has been, stealthily, one of the central and most definitive issues in Pakistani democracy.” And whatever the petty and self-serving politics behind the various positions taken by different political parties, he wrote, “Pakistanis should be pleased that decentralisation represents the very heart of political discourse in Pakistan in 2011.”

Pakistan’s inability to accommodate ethnic diversity has a painful history. At its worst, it led to the bitter civil war in 1971 when then East Pakistan, resentful of the domination of West Pakistan, broke away with Indian help to become the new state of Bangladesh. But it is at its most insidious not for what it fails to do, but for what it requires in its place – an over-reliance on a particular, but contested, interpretation of Islam as the only force which can unite Pakistan, and a need for real or imagined external enemies (it used to be India, now it extends to the United States) to pull the country together in a defensive huddle.

So for all its fitful and frustrating progress, the effort to build democracy is likely to be the real story of Pakistan in the coming year or so, ahead of elections due by 2013. Rightly or wrongly, people believe the United States is preparing to leave the region, and attention is turning to domestic politics as the place where Pakistan’s future will be contested. Relations with the United States and India will of course continue to play a role, as will the Islamist militants waging a campaign of gun and bomb attacks inside Pakistan, but many of the influences that will shape that political contest are less obvious.

Among these is the separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest but least populated province, where demands for outright independence appear to be gaining strength over aspirations for greater autonomy. The area is rich in resources, home to Gwadar port – meant to give China access to the Arabian Sea and Gulf oil supplies – and arguably more strategically significant than Afghanistan. Although the insurgency has not yet come to dominate political discourse, it is an unpredictable wild card which could prompt some to call for greater, centralised, and therefore military control, and others for even more decentralisation.

The social transformation of Pakistan – it is becoming more conservative, its attitude to religion less pluralistic, its view of the west more hostile – also forms an incongruent backdrop to the transition to democracy. Whereas for example in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development party was able to occupy that socially conservative space to strengthen its hand against the secularist military, in Pakistan the situation is the reverse. The Pakistan Army, keen to find rallying call to unite the country, has been the main promoter of Islam; the secularists – or those few of them left who would still use that word – are in the mainstream political parties.

Meanwhile, the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has been unable to create a convincing and inspiring narrative on the reasoning behind decentralisation and democratisation as it fights its own dirty political battles, most recently in a tussle for power over the commercial capital Karachi with the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party in which several hundred people were killed.

The political elite continues to be defined by allegations of corruption (Pakistan was in 143rd place in last year’s Transparency International index) and by its dynastic and feudal traditions. The government faces repeated accusations of inept governance – accusations it counters by pointing to an accumulation of problems beyond its control, from international financial crisis, to devastating floods, to the war in Afghanistan.

That absence of a convincing narrative has left space for others who as columnist Nadeem Paracha wrote wryly in Dawn, proffer simplistic solutions to Pakistan’s many problems. If you talk to the religious parties calling for an end to corruption and the need for justice and welfare for the common man, it is hard to disagree with them in principle, it is only in practice it becomes difficult to implement while also creating a tolerant and pluralist democracy.

Most recently, the liberal-leaning English-language media has been full of warnings about what they see as military backing for former cricketer turned political Imran Khan – who shares a political platform with the Jamaat Islami, Pakistan’s oldest religious party – to propel him to power in the next election. In this scenario, the judiciary would be called upon to rid Pakistan of its corrupt politicians, clearing the way for Khan’s so far electorally unsuccessful Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party to edge ahead of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan’s reputation rests on him being seen as untainted by corruption.

“Clearly, Imran Khan is pinning his hopes on an army-judiciary move not just to oust the Zardari regime but to establish an interim government and permanent election commission and accountability process that sweeps aside the mainstream PPP and PMLN leaders, decimates their parties and paves the way for the PTI to emerge as the sole spokesman of Pakistan!” veteran columnist Najam Sethi wrote in The Friday Times, complaining that such a “malafide” intervention would set back Pakistan’s messy transition to democracy, pit the mainstream parties against the army, and intensify ethnic rivalries.

For the outside world, these competing currents in Pakistan’s domestic politics will be crucial in determining whether it emerges as a more stable country. But there may be little it can do to influence them constructively. The United States does not have great track record of intervening to promote democracy in Pakistan – like many of the country’s chroniclers, its tendency has been to look to the military for quick and apparently simple solutions. And with world events happening at alarming speed, from financial crisis to Middle East uprisings, Washington is unlikely to have the attention span to deal with the delicate business of nurturing democracy. As Britain discovered, with a certain amount of irony, democracy is messy and unpredictable – it had only just stepped in to encourage Pakistan’s warring politicians to end violence in Karachi when urban riots broke out at home.


Extended US Military Presence in Afghanistan & Its Implications On Pakistan

August 26, 2011

The Daily Telegraph reports that the status of forces agreement that the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating may allow a U.S. military presence in the country until 2024 . That’s a full 10 years beyond the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.

The negotiations are being conducted under a veil of security, and we have no way of knowing, at this point at least, if the two sides are really talking about U.S. troops in the country for that long. ( The very fact that a decade after U.S. troops entered the country there is no formal agreement spelling out the terms of their deployment is in itself remarkable)

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Hazare-like movement need of the hour

August 26, 2011

Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi observed on Thursday that the solution to all national problems lied in elimination of corruption, saying Pakistan also needed Anna Hazare-like movement.

“The people of Pakistan will have to raise voice against corruption as it has plagued our society,” he added while talking to the media persons on occasion of death anniversary of his father, former Governor Makhdoom Sajjad Hussain Qureshi. He said that corruption was at its peak in today’s Pakistan and its elimination had become inevitable.

Referring to Karachi, he said that Army operation was no more a sustainable solution. “The civilian security departments will have to play an effective role for maintaining peace in Karachi,” he added. He said that all political parties should unite against violence and play their role for ending this crisis. HE said that the government did not exhibit the level of seriousness it should have for resolving Karachi issue.

To a query on flood situation, he said that the government did not learn any lesson from past devastation caused by the flood. He claimed that the flood issue was being mishandled which could deliver serious harm to the citizens. “The government should adopt practical measures for offering relief to the flood victims instead of getting covered fake camps by the media,” he maintained. He suggested that the federal and provincial disaster management authorities would have to evolve a comprehensive strategy for avoiding flood threats.

Answering a question on new provinces, he said that there was no harm in forming new provinces on administrative grounds. “But this issue is also being made controversial. Some elements are doing politics on this issue,” he pointed out.

2,912 youth to get vehicles in Multan: The Punjab government is going to give out 2,912 vehicles to jobless youth in Multan division under Chief Minister Yellow Cab Scheme and the ballot for this purpose will take place at Multan Arts Council on August 29. Out of total, as many as 1082 vehicles are allocated for Multan district, 699 Khanewal, 724 Vehari and 407 Lodhran.

The government is going to deliver Suzuki Mehran and pick up vehicles under this scheme.

“We’ve received 9930 applications against 2912 vehicles. The balloting will be held by the Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif himself,” the Commissioner Multan division Muhammad Khurram Agha disclosed while chairing a meeting to review arrangements for the ballot ceremony.

He added that the scheme would not only give honourable employment to the youth but also facilitate the masses in terms of traveling facilities. The Commissioner appointed additional commissioner Mian Muhammad Maqbool Abbasi as head of organizing committee and secretary RTA Malik Shafique focal person for yellow cab scheme.The representative of Bank of Punjab told the meeting that tough scrutiny of the applicants’ document was being carried out.


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