Baby steps in great leap

A news agency headline read: “Parliament makes history by completing tenure”. Many papers carried similar headlines regarding the Pakistani parliament’s tenure. It is indeed a historic moment and nothing short of a huge achievement.

The Friday Times’ editor-in-chief and Geo TV anchor, Najam Sethi, said: “Despite acute hiccups, it is an unprecedented historical achievement that immeasurably strengthens the bond between political parties and civil society in quest of a consensus in the rules of democracy. That also explains why many people are still incredulous about a smooth transition via genuinely free elections.”

Sethi’s remark regarding a smooth transition is extremely important. Parliaments in the past have completed their tenures twice — once under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the last one under Gen. Pervez Musharraf — but the conditions were quite different under both regimes.

Bhutto completed his tenure but the announced polls were never held. The transition was disrupted and then hijacked by the civilian Opposition in cahoots with the military.

Now all political parties and civil society are stoking the consensus behind the current transition as opposed to what happened in Bhutto’s time. So, the process of completing a full term is organically linked with the transition via free elections to another parliament and government.

As for the previous government, Gen. Musharraf was both the President and the army chief while a civilian government was in place. Musharraf had created an artificial party (PML-Q) and the caretaker governments were all set up by Musharraf and company, just as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was not empowered to challenge them.

The transition under Gen. Musharraf was neither civilian-led nor free and fair, hence it cannot be compared to the current one.

This parliament has not just empowered the election commission but put in place a mechanism where even the opposition has to be on board in setting up a caretaker government so that pre-poll rigging can be avoided as far as possible and a smooth transition can take place.

Pakistan’s democracy may be weak but it needs time to evolve. Some indicators tell us that while the people of Pakistan may not have benefited much under this government, they have come to the realisation that they trust the democratic process and want elections.

Peaceful protests against the government took place but there were no demands to pack up democracy. “People want to discuss issues, be it education, economy, infrastructure, health services, sectarianism or terrorism. They want their elected representatives to be answerable to them. This is a great leap forward in the evolution of democracy,” said journalist Iftikhar Ahmad.

What we have seen in the last five years is political maturity not just from the people of Pakistan but all political parties as well.

PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif has been accused of playing the part of a “soft Opposition”. But that is because he understands that unless and until civilian governments complete their tenures, it is not possible to address the issue of civil-military imbalance. Strong civilian governments in the future are the key to ending the military’s influence on politics and Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Veteran journalist Nusrat Javeed was of the view that civilian governments in the past were not trusted as they did not bring an aura of stability with them. Our military has been known to get rid of civilian governments one way or the other.

Political musical chairs between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s was another factor.

“The last government completed its tenure because it was protected by the shield of Musharraf’s uniform. Now we have a vibrant National Assembly as well as provincial assemblies that will complete their tenures. Anti-democratic forces will have to reconcile with the fact that elected governments are here to stay. These are baby steps towards stability and thus of great importance,” said Javeed.

(Originally published in The Telegraph)

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