Institutional imbalance and democracy in Pakistan

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  • 11 Years ago
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Democracy is a delicate system of government. It is based on a number of principles that have to be implemented in their true spirit. Much depends how these principles are actually applied. Self-restraint and over all welfare of the society are key determinants for pursuing democracy. The major weakness in a democratic system is that it can be destroyed by democratic means. For example, if the majority party in the parliament becomes insensitive to the concerns of the opposition and uses its strength in the parliament to pass laws that negate the spirit of democracy or place unjustified restrictions on the opposition, democracy is going to be undermined. Democracy believes in the rule by majority but it should not be turned into tyranny of the majority.
The primacy of institutions and law over individuals and organizations is an important value of democracy. These institutions must respect each other because every institution enjoys autonomy but does not operate in a vacuum; each institution has to interact with others. If an institution attempts to expand its domain at the expense of others or tries to dominate others or develops a self-ascribed mission of rectifying all other institutions, there will be sharp institutional imbalance and conflict which is not helpful to democracy.
In a democratic system no person or institution can make an exclusive claim to ‘all wisdom’ or the ‘final truth’ or the ‘national interest’. All this is evolved through dialogue and mutual exchange among the political and societal players and state institutions. Politics is viewed as the art of making things happen within the context of law and power politics rather than pursuing this as an activity simply for promoting textbook honesty or righteousness. The latter values are part of the collective ideals and norms of democracy but all democratic ideals are pursued through mutual consultation and shared effort. No single institution or leader can enforce them or engage in cleansing the political and societal processes as a self-assumed responsibility.
Pakistan faced the problem of institutional imbalance from the beginning. The political institutions like the assembly, political parties, societal organizations and the media were weak. The state institutions like the bureaucracy and the military were stronger. This imbalance strengthened over time because Pakistan faced strong security pressure from India and Afghanistan. It also had internal law and order problems, forcing the government to give the highest priority to security against external threats and internal disorder. This strengthened the military and the societal and political institutions were neglected. The other institution that benefited from the situation was the bureaucracy.
The strengthening of the military and the bureaucracy increased institutional imbalance in Pakistan. In October 1958, the military under General Ayub Khan assumed political power by imposing martial law. The military ruled the country with the support of the bureaucracy. It was able to cultivate the support of a section of the political leaders.
Since then the military assumed political power three more times and overwhelmed the political, economic and societal processes in Pakistan.
The return to democracy in March 2008 has initiated the process of rehabilitating civilian institutions and balancing them with the state institutions. As the tradition of institutional balance is weak in Pakistan, different institutions are now striving hard to expand their domains because democracy has provided them with an opportunity to function freely.
Traditionally the judiciary in Pakistan had sided with the military and provided legal cover to its take-over of the state power. Now, the superior judiciary is attempting to retrieve the initiative it lost to the military. The superior judiciary’s effort to expand its domain of authority has built strains on the executive and the legislature. It is using its constitutional powers to focus on the lapses of the federal government.
As the political adversaries of the PPP have realized that the superior judiciary is building pressure on the federal government led by the PPP, it takes political matters to the high courts or the Supreme Court. Most of their petitions are against the federal government, President Zardari and Prime Minster Gilani. In addition to the on-going contempt of court case against the prime minister in the Supreme Court, he also faces a disqualification case in the Lahore High Court filed by some private citizen.
Other pressure is coming from two sources. First, the poor performance of the federal government has alienated a good number of people. The performance of the provincial government is equally poor. However, the PMLN has been publicly encouraging agitation against the federal government on the electricity issue in the Punjab which diverts attention from its own lapses in the Punjab. Second, the opposition political parties build pressure on the PPP government. This pressure is expected to increase as Pakistan moves towards general elections. The Punjab Chief Minister is publically engaged in Zardari bashing.
However, the most damaging institutional conflict is likely to be between the federal government and the Supreme Court, especially if the Supreme Court convicted and sentenced the prime minister in the contempt of court case. This would be the second time that the PPP top leaders faced negative judgment from the Supreme Court.
Any such situation will increase polarization because the major opposition parties would support the Supreme Court in their bid to get rid of the PPP-led federal government. The ruling coalition which has stable majority in the National Assembly would like to hold on to power even after the judgment of the Supreme Court in the contempt of court case. It may select a new prime minister who is not expected to write the letter for reopening of cases in Switzerland.
The main victim of such confrontation will be democracy whose diminution will also adversely affect the Supreme Court and the opposition.

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