Even this close to the next election, which will be the first democratic transition for Pakistan, doubts remain if it will be held on time or held at all
Only a month is left for the scheduled dissolution of Pakistan’s National Assembly and, as per the law, elections have to be held within two months thereafter. In any other country, political parties would be in the throes of preparing for the electoral battle ahead. Not so in Pakistan. Here, everyone, politicians included, are plucking petals murmuring “elections-on-time”/“delayed elections.” It has literally come to that now.
Given Pakistan’s fondness for conspiracy theories, the current narrative could have been dismissed as yet another episode of collective “over-thinking.” But not when every effort to put question marks on the elections has found wind in its sails. For two months now, a man who had left Pakistan a decade ago to take up Canadian citizenship and travel the world to present “the moderate face of Islam’’ has held Pakistan’s politics hostage, feeding on the perennial insecurity that plagues politicians in this country. And, despite doubts galore about his agenda he did get some amount of traction.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s rap on cleric-politician Tahir-ul Qadri’s knuckles this week will arrest the momentum he had managed to gather for his diatribe against not just the political class but also the Election Commission. Though the Supreme Court allowed him a hearing and, in turn, got a earful from him — Dr. Qadri advocated his own case — his petition challenging the constitution of the Election Commission was thrown out, ending round two of this latest effort to derail the democratic project.
This time, Dr. Qadri was not allowed the luxury of a face-saver that was given to him in January when he picketed Islamabad’s main thoroughfare outside Parliament House demanding immediate dissolution of the National Assembly and state legislatures besides the setting up a caretaker set-up in consultation with the judiciary and the military.
What remains to be seen is whether there will be more chapters in the Qadri saga. But the way things have evolved in the past couple of months, few are willing to hazard a guess. Because, he came in and set the cat among the pigeons at a time when even the most bitter critics of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition had reconciled themselves to seeing the government complete its term and the country going for its first election under civilian watch in 65 years.
From the day he landed in Pakistan, in mid-December, Dr. Qadri has maintained that he was working on his own for setting up a true democracy in the country. Not convincing though since his actions have not just triggered a wave of uncertainty but almost set the stage for delaying the elections by demanding reconstitution of the Election Commission on the eve of elections. Plus he resurrected the forgotten and practically impossible-to-abide-by Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution that prescribe the eligibility criteria for legislators.
Another Zia-era legacy that threatens to weigh down Pakistan’s democracy, are Articles 62 and 63. They essentially mandate that only individuals with squeaky clean track records can contest elections.
There is consensus among opinion-makers that this is a Pandora’s box best left unopened at this juncture, but the demand for enforcing Articles 62 and 63 in the letter did gain currency among those who wax eloquent on corrupt politicians and want to clean up the system first before the elections.
Most see democracy as an end in itself and not a process, so the disappointment in the inability of a blundering government to deliver is only natural. While the current dispensation has made some landmark decisions on the constitutional front, the PPP has failed to meet the bread-and-butter issues that plague the average Pakistani thereby creating disenchantment in the democratic process in a nation perpetually on the lookout for a saviour.
Now that the Qadri experiment appears to have lost steam, the question is whether the forces that allowed him to manipulate the narrative will reveal their hand. The PPP’s insistence on seeing through its five years till the very last date has not helped either as it has allowed room for those unhappy with the democratic process to fish.
Sensing the dangers ahead, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is the main opposition party, asked the PPP this week to speed up the process of selecting a caretaker prime minister; preferably from among the names suggested by the Opposition. This includes noted human rights activist Asma Jehangir, whose name was immediately rejected by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) though the party technically does not have a berth in the decision-making process for selecting the interim premier as it has no presence in Parliament.
However, both the government and the Opposition agreed to allow parties outside Parliament have a say in the interim dispensation but the apprehension is whether they can put their heads together and evolve a consensus on this issue.
While the PPP and the PML(N) have in the past displayed the ability to bury their differences and evolve a consensus on major issues, including the selection of Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim as the Chief Election Commissioner whose name was first suggested by the Opposition, the fear is that the PTI may play a spoiler.
Mr. Khan is constantly accusing the PPP and PML(N) of indulging in muk-muka politics — being “frenemies” — and has threatened a “tsunami march” that would trump all earlier protests if an impartial interim government is not set up ahead of the elections.
And, now that the time has come for appointing an interim government as per the Constitution to oversee the elections, talk of the Bangladesh model, where the military and the higher judiciary set up a government of technocrats in 2007, is back in circulation. Through the five years of this dispensation, the Bangladesh model has been brought out, dusted and packed back in but the process of setting up an interim government provides fertile ground for this now.
If the political parties cannot agree on an interim set-up, then the Election Commission is empowered to step in and do the needful under the Supreme Court’s supervision. Though the Supreme Court has, time and again, said elections should be held on time, there is a fear that if the political class does not get its act together on the interim set-up, then it could well be laying the ground for a government of technocrats which could extend its own life in the name of good governance.