Notice: Undefined index: HTTP_CF_DEVICE_TYPE in /var/app/current/index.php on line 16 Strengthening democratic norms | The Express Tribune

Strengthening democratic norms

Published: February 27, 2019
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The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The prevailing impression is that since the PTI government has come into power the civil-military relations have significantly improved. And there is a greater level of understanding and mutual trust between them. This is largely true and the credit goes to the prime minister and the army chief for building a harmonious and functional relationship. Circumstances and several compelling factors have also played a major role in bringing about this change.

It was only natural that the military leadership would realise that military rule in the past had cost the nation dearly and was a product of special external and domestic circumstances. It invariably ended in chaos as 71 years of our history testifies. Whatever gains achieved in terms of economic development and stability during the period military remained in power was soon lost and the nation had to start all over again. This was evident during every transition whether it related to Ayub, Zia or Musharraf’s period. Moreover, a military government due to its inherent nature creates the succession problem. As a consequence military or civilian dictators prefer to prolong their rule and either die while in position or are thrown out. Our history and that of other developing countries like Sudan, Egypt and several Asian, African and Latin American countries bear testimony to this assumption.

The military, however, in many developing states, including ours, wields greater influence in areas that would otherwise fall in the preview of civilian domain. As is well known in Pakistan the military enjoys considerable influence in the area of foreign affairs, security related matters and even in the economy. The circumstances that preceded and followed Pakistan’s birth gave the military a unique position of importance. Defence of the country especially against India and later the growing insurgency and the regional situation reinforced the role of the armed forces.

Essentially its involvement remains in those civilian areas where there is either a power vacuum or the institution considers it vital in national interest to retain a foothold.

One expects that as the civilian government becomes more functional and credible in the eyes of its people democracy would be strengthened. And state institutions would then harmonise with democratic norms and function within their constitutional boundaries.

Moreover, the government and the opposition parties should take the activities in the parliament seriously. It is a matter of serious concern the way parliament has been functioning for the last six months. Lack of diligence by the parliamentarians has given greater space and power to the media and public to criticise the politicians. More worrisome other state institutions have increased their influence while parliament remains dysfunctional. The irony is not that there is any dearth of talent among the politicians it is the question of attitude and commitment on the part of its top leadership. In this the initiative has to come from the government that is missing. The prime minister has been conducting the affairs of the state more in the presidential style than as the leader of the House. His absence or weak attendance has robbed parliament of its importance. The prolonged controversy on the chair of the Public Accounts Committee and mutual recrimination between politicians has not served the country or their own interest well. Absence of opposition leaders from state functions during the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit was one such example that reflected adversely on our democracy. It also deprived us of projecting forcefully the consensus that exists across the aisle for strong relations with the Kingdom.

Democratic practices and culture within the political parties is as crucial as in parliament or in matters of governance. The era of dynastic politics should come to an end. It does not imply that members of the same family cannot participate in politics or hold high office. What is expected that it should be on the basis of merit and through a genuine and transparent process of elections! After all we have many families in mature democracies that have held the highest positions. The Kennedys, Bushs and Clinton family are recent examples from the United States. In India, the Nehru family for three generations had been in power. In all these cases it was through a fair and transparent process the political leaders came to power.

In Pakistan too we have several examples where politicians from the same family have been on high positions by virtue of their commitment and ability. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir were immensely popular leaders and had come to power through people’s vote. It is when favouritism and narrow interests prevail in the election of party leaders democracy gets weakened and should be forcefully rejected.

Pakistan’s ability to resist foreign aggression and pressures would be greatly enhanced as our democratic institutions get strengthened.

The country is facing formidable internal and external challenges. Indian growing hostility, Afghanistan’ precarious transition and regional rivalry between Arab countries and Iran coupled with our weak economic situation demand political interaction between the ruling and opposition parties both inside and outside parliament. Presenting Pakistan’s viewpoint at a press conference by the foreign minister though necessary is not sufficient. It has to be accompanied and preferably preceded by his briefing and in-depth discussion in parliament. This would provide greater clarity to our policy and send a stronger message to India and the world. When national power is diffused or suffers from factional rivalry demoralisation sets in.

Recent differences that have surfaced between the information minister and the prime minister’s aide are not new phenomena as rivalry and competition for proximity to power are common occurrence even in mature democracies. What is important is the manner in which these are handled and not allowed to simmer, lest it adversely impacts on governance.

The current process of accountability and trial of our top opposition politicians is being closely watched at home and abroad for their fairness and compliance with legal justice. And if conducted impartially would set the tone for a more just and equitable social order.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2019.

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