Arm-Twist Democracy in Pakistan

With general elections due on July 25, Pakistan is thrilled with the heretofore unlikely chance to see an unprecedented second consecutive transfer of government from one democratically elected government to another, albeit with plenty of violence, and a whiff of a hint that the transfer is being rigged. So far, some 180 people have died in violence connected to the election.

A democratic transfer is not only rare in terms of Pakistan’s checkered political history and successive military dictatorships, but also a significant development towards restoring the civil-military balance, which, despite the seeming transition to democracy in 2008, remains heavily tilted to the non-elected state apparatus, the military.

Shariff blocked

Nawaz Sharif, while enjoying a clear majority in the parliament and a sizeable popular vote bank, was first disqualified and then convicted on charges of corruption, leading to a massive controversy and subsequent talk of an alliance between the judiciary and the military over removing him and installing former cricket luminary Imran Khan as the next prime minister.

Khan has struggled with irrelevance for the better part of 20 years. But his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has become the main contender to power. Other candidates have been silenced or even killed by the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested on his return from overseas to rally his political party on July 13. He himself was not on the ballot. While it is by no means certain that Sharif’s removal and conviction would automatically kill his big vote-bank, the talk of the town remains focused on ‘controlled democracy’ and the interventionist play of “unknown hands” who are despised by Sharif and his vote-bank but loved by his opponents.

This is a twisted relationship, yet one can’t disregard the importance of getting “elected” in Pakistan to gain legitimacy. After all, even though Sharif has been removed, just as he was removed back in 1999 as a result of a military take-over, it hasn’t led to martial law.

Instead, Sharif’s post-removal politics saw him making an unprecedented march on the play of those unknown hands, returning to the country to target their direct and indirect interventions aimed at sabotaging the elected government, thus clearly proving that democracy does remain controlled and the balance of power tilted towards the non-elected apparatus.

But the purview of democracy in Pakistan has become a bit larger than was ever the case. Certainly, from 2008 onwards, the growth of democracy, even though controlled, has led to the spread of a new political discourse that was impossible back in the 1990s.

This is evident from the rise of leftist political parties not in the poor, underdeveloped and remote regions, but in the heart of Pakistan and the seat of power, Islamabad. Therefore, an evaluation of Pakistan’s path towards democracy with just a simple focus on the question of parliamentary democracy is bound to miss the important development, which grew from simply small demonstrations and party offices until a few years ago, to having enough support in the capital to contest for at least two parliamentary seats from two different constituencies.

Silence of Street Politics Over

And, while leftist/communist politics remain banned, the visible rise of ‘the progressives,’ as the Awami Workers Party’s (People’s Workers Party) members call themselves, in the heart of the country does symbolize the end of the decades-long silence of active street politics based upon engaging with the lower classes and slum dwellers.

While not a big party yet, the Awami Workers Party (AWP) isn’t the only progressive party that has become visible enough to be reported in the mainstream Pakistani media. There are others as well based in Lahore and even in the province of Sind, which are contesting elections and are even making electoral alliances.

That these parties and people associated with them in one way or the other are making an impact is evident from the way a number of them have become the latest victims of “forced disappearances,” another term for the alleged illegal abductions of activists by the security agencies.

While the politics of dissent manifested through such parties isn’t typical leftist revolutionary politics –and no revolution is even likely to happen – the opening up of some space for these parties is where the locus of real democracy in Pakistan is, on the ground, away from the elitists.

While the credit for opening up political space for progressive parties in an age of terrorism and religious militancy does in no way go to the ousted Sharif, there is no gainsaying that both he and these progressive parties remain victims of the critical civil-military imbalance that continues to prevent, through active resistance, the path to democracy and civilian supremacy.

Even Dictators Played Lip Service

Until this happens, merely holding elections every five year might not serve the purpose at all. After all, Pakistan’s military dictators, starting from the first, Ayub Khan (1958-1969) to the last, Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), did hold elections and even got themselves “elected” through popular votes or referendum. All of these dictators even held parliamentary elections to remove the stigma of dictatorship.

Yet, democracy remains fragile and a controversial concept in Pakistan, with its definition fundamentally limited to a five-year election cycle. This is even more so in the present context where the establishment is still strong and even has on its plate the threat of terrorism and tension on Pakistan’s eastern and western borders with India and Afghanistan respectively to justify its larger than life role in ‘managing’ internal and external affairs.

No wonder, even the election commission of Pakistan, the primary election-holding authority, has requested the armed forces to help supervise (read: arm twist) and manage the elections. And, as a popular saying goes: those who manage the election also decide the election.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.