The unique moment of a civilian government completing its full term is in danger of being undermined by the failure of political parties to reach consensus on a caretaker government

Pakistan is scheduled to go to the polls on May 11. These would be the first democratic elections in our history coming at the end of the completion of an elected civilian government’s full term. Pakistanis are right to celebrate this historic moment as a major step forward for the fledgling democracy in our nation.

This was not easily accomplished. The country reeled under the weight of a long tradition of political meddling and manipulation of the democratic process by an overwhelming security establishment. This time, the military chief operated behind the scenes while the Chief Justice, restored by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) coalition government, constantly intervened in matters unrelated to the Supreme Court. Judicial overactivism and a constant countdown by elements in the national media predicting the government’s fall held the government hostage. It was difficult to get the business of governance accomplished.

Ties with India

Pakistan’s relations with India had to absorb the shocks of the unjustifiable terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Ties with the United States were challenged by Osama bin Laden being found in the garrison town of Abbottabad, surrounded by his three wives and several children, pointing to a life undisturbed by state or its citizens.

The economy, reflecting the global downturn in 2008, was badly battered. Attempts at attracting investment or changing course in key areas were undermined by the confrontation between the executive and the judiciary as well as the overall sense of uncertainty. The law and order situation and efforts to fight ubiquitous terrorism were not helped by the establishment’s tacit support for many jihadi groups.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry openly targeted, victimised and vilified the PPP government throughout its five-year tenure. The most egregious example of this judicial activism gone awry was when our democratically elected Prime Minister Syed Yusaf Raza Gillani was sent home by judicial fiat and had to be replaced midterm.

But the democratically elected government endured. Unlike in the past, there was no premature dissolution of Parliament and no military coup. The sudden re-emergence of controversial cleric Tahirul Qadri, the expected arrival of General Pervez Musharraf and the massive increase in lawlessness around the country have all raised the spectre of machinations against democracy. There has been a surge also in efforts to give legitimacy to terrorist leaders, which is a cause for worry. But there is a widespread expectation that this time the democratic process will run its course. The military and the establishment will snipe at the heels but will not be able to overthrow the democratic process entirely. There will be a chance for the system to evolve.

With the federal and provincial governments completing their terms, neutral interim caretaker governments need to be formed by consensus between the government and the opposition. That consensus appears lacking, especially in Punjab and at the federal level. This unsettling state of affairs goes to the antagonistic relationship between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-Nawaz group. The PPP and its leadership and workers still have a vivid memory of the cases and witch-hunts conducted under the previous two Nawaz Sharif governments. The PML-N has always seen and continues to see the PPP as its only serious competition for the prize of government.

Although the PPP proudly proclaims that there have been no political prisoners taken and no politically motivated cases generated under its leadership this time, the PML-N remembers with anger the aborted effort to replace its provincial government in Punjab in 2009. The back and forth over names for the interim prime minister between the two main parties reflects inflexibility to the point of paralysis. This may yet prove to be the greatest challenge to a democratic transition. In the past, whenever politicians, forgetting the history of military interventions, went head to head, they created space for palace or military coups.

This stalemate has to be sorted out before the end of the week. Midnight on March 22 is the deadline for a parliamentary committee to agree on an interim government. Failure to reach agreement by then would put the Election Commission in charge of the process. That will reflect poorly on the civilian political leadership and their ability to work together.

What all Pakistan watchers know well is that the security establishment holds “bloody civilians” in contempt. Once politicians are discredited as incapable of compromise and predisposed to squabbling, the army and its civilian allies find ways to establish their own writ. Pakistan has come farther along the democratic road than at any other time in its chequered history. One can only hope that this time around a failure to compromise between the two major political parties will not set the democratic process back again.

(Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of the Pakistan Parliament.)

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