South Asian Politics: Challenges to and Continuity of Democracy [Part II]
In this multi-part series, I am reviewing the political dynamics of South Asian countries. The first part was about Indian politics in 2014. This part looks into the politics of Pakistan as it evolves from last year till now. The series started as a review of the region’s politics in the preceding year, but I now move to periodic analyses of South Asian countries’ national politics.
For Pakistan -- the country that was once world’s largest Islamic nation and so far the only one with nuclear arsenal -- long spells of misfortune seem to be lingering. Last year, the country went through heightened political volatility and worsening security situation compounded by recurring flood and weak economy.
Although 2014 ushered in with beacon of hope in Pakistan’s politics due to democratic continuity, a rarity in its nearly seventy years of nationhood. It’s the first time since the country’s independence in 1947 that there was normal transition from one elected government to another. Continuous military intervention in politics and one after another coup d'etat made the country a classic example of praetorian state. For the outgoing government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by erstwhile President Asif Ali Zardari, it was both a fit of political survival and sheer good luck that the party could finish its term in power and could exit through a regular election. The May 2013 parliamentary election that was accepted overall, was won by the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of charismatic cricket superstar Imran Khan emerged as a strong third party. But by far the biggest winner was Pakistan’s people and its still fledgling democratic system.
The momentum of such historic democratic transition began to recede within a year in the face of resurgent Islamist militants and a brewing political crisis allegedly backed by the military. It was apparent that in the praetorian state that Pakistan is, military continues to be a political player albeit from behind the scene. There was a symbolic manifestation of this when the motorcade of the Prime Minister (PM) elect Nawaz Sharif was stopped for several minutes on the way to his oath taking ceremony for the then Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s convoy to pass.
Around the middle of 2014, the new government of PM Sharif was one year in office. The challenges at its hand while assuming power were no short-order: reviving an economy sliding downward and addressing the energy crisis, defeating the violent Islamist militancy specially the ongoing insurgency in the north-western tribal areas, reducing military’s influence in politics, improving relations with arch rival India and socio-economic development. The performance of Sharif government hasn’t been remarkable in any of these fronts. While no one has magic bullet to solve Pakistan’s complex problems yet some drastic reforms are warranted to rescue the country from current abyss.
In reviving economy and addressing energy crisis, the Sharif government has some success. It was able to bring down fiscal deficit through macroeconomic adjustments and securing external financing. But there is no notable progress with increasing revenue earnings and domestic and foreign investments. These are not going to happen simply by deficit reduction. There is also no visible steps to deal with the energy crisis in the short-run. One giant leap though was the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) deal worth of US $45.6 billion. The huge sum will be invested in energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan over next six years. It is poised to set new FDI record in the country, lead the way out of energy crisis and spur a wave of industrialisation through Special Economic Zones (SEZs).
Some such successes in the economic front didn’t prove enough to secure the Sharif government for it soon faced political challenge right in the streets. In August of 2014, Imran Khan’s PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), a moderate religious party led by celebrity cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri paralysed capital Islamabad demanding the government’s resignation. Thousands of supporters of the two parties laid a siege to the city’s “Red Zone” - the high security enclave that houses parliament, official residence of PM and the Supreme Court. Although they were deterred by the security forces yet they severely interrupted normal life in the capital for weeks. Strangely enough, the expressed justification for their demand was not for any governance failure or misrule. There was also no public support behind them since the government’s approval particularly that of PM Sharif was quite high in the first year term. Khan was demanding government’s resignation on the basis of alleged vote rigging of the May 2013 election by Sharif’s party while most of the foreign and domestic observers called the election clean. On the other hand, Qadri’s reason was more far-fetched. He called for both the national and provincial governments of Pakistan to resign since the whole political system has become corrupt to the core according to him. What was not clear however was his plans for the alternative. Besides, such justification was also used for military intervention in past.
There was wider speculation shared by the Pakistani press and the political observers that the military had a role behind PTI and PAT protests. One agenda of Sharif government that is also a longstanding public demand was increasing civilian control of the country’s powerful military. Even during current phase of democratic rule, military holds considerable influence in Pakistan’s foreign and security policies, and, they are not willing to give it up. In the words of Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert of Pakistan’s defence establishment, “(the) military as an institution has always had this influence in politics, through clients in the political parties, in the civil society, and in the media … but Nawaz [Sharif] is challenging that.” Some of Sharif’s foreign and security policy decisions like willingness to improve relations with India and trying to negotiate peace with Pakistani Taliban, and lately his insistence in putting former President and military dictator Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason - didn't sit well with Pakistan military establishment. So, they may have encouraged PTI and PAT protests, in order to send a signal to Sharif for limiting his ambitions and let military retain its power and privilege.
It is also widely believed that the military establishment is not liking any possibility of improved ties with arch rival India. Even amid continuous dispute over Kashmir region and ongoing border shootings for over six months, PM Sharif reciprocated newly elected Indian PM Modi’s invitation to attend his inauguration along with other South Asian leaders. The two leaders signaled steps to improve relations between their nations in their meeting during the inauguration. The historic momentum was soon lost over the following months due to Pakistan military’s alleged non-cooperation to the two leaders’ peace overtures.
The Sharif government was also not successful in defeating Islamist militancy. The country faced continuous militant violence with rising deaths and destructions. In 2014, a total of 7,655 deaths were recorded in Pakistan due to terrorism, militant attacks, drone strikes, sectarian violence, targeted killings and security operations. This is much higher than 5,687 similar fatalities in 2013. Terror incidents and militant attacks gripped the nation in regular intervals throughout the year. Peace negotiation with the militants in the north-western tribal areas was initiated by government but failed within few months. After a violent militant attack in Pakistan’s main international airport in the port city of Karachi, the peace negotiation totally fell apart and government launched the counter-insurgency military offensive Zarb-e-Ajb(Sharp and Cutting Strike). Casualties kept rising on both sides with collateral damages of civilian life and property, and about a million internally-displaced. Militants are still not suppressed and carrying violent terrorist attacks. The most brutal one came at the year end when the Pakistani taliban attacked an Army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar killing a total of 145 people including 132 school children.
The tragic attack that sent shockwaves across the country and the world is termed as “Pakistan’s 9/11.” There is a renewed resolve to fight terrorism and a political consensus for military solution. There seems no letting up with the cycle of violence and revenge that the country is already consumed with. Amid widespread call for blood of the militants, Pakistan parliament amended constitution in the first week of new year legalising trial of civilians in summary military tribunals. It is uncertain if such a drastic move can dissuade militants from terrorist attacks. Apparently not since there was another major terror attack that killed about 60 people, this time at a historical mosque of Shia Muslims in Shikarpur town of Sindh province. But such summary tribunals can surely add to the collateral damage by exacerbating human rights violation and exceptions to rule of law. Then there will be universalisation of victimhood and overarching human insecurity eroding socio-economic fabrics and weakening democracy further along the way.
Pakistan needs to go beyond military operations and shun military tribunals in fighting the Islamist militancy. There should be a more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that combines military instruments with political, economic and social ones. Military actions can defeat Islamist militancy up to a certain point. But wiping out militancy from politics and society requires democratic consolidation, reformed political culture, human development, spread of education, social equity, employment generation and protection of the rights of women and minorities. That is the direction Pakistan should take not only to defeat militancy but also to mature into an effective state and society.
Pakistan’s leaders including PM Sharif and political-military-economic elites have to learn from the past. Waking up to the ‘moment of truth’ presented by the Peshawar school attack, they have to refresh themselves and their ways. This is difficult in fact very difficult but not impossible. They have to -- for Pakistan’s future!