Pakistan: Back to the Future ?

This is in continuation of my last blog on the crisis facing democracy in Pakistan  – Pakistan: Prisoner of a Flawed Narrative

…….and the inevitable has happened. The crisis that one hoped may trigger responses in the body politic that would help strengthen the fledgeling democracy in Pakistan is upon the country now.  Supreme Court of Pakistan, vide its judgement dated 28.7.2017, has disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the flimsy ground that he had been dishonest in not disclosing his earnings from a Dubai-based company owned by his son in his nomination papers during the 2013 general election.  The apex court conveniently ignored Sharif’s assertion that the disclosure excluded the potential income because he had actually received none from the source in question. Nawaz Sharif immediately resigned, paving way for a night watchman as prime minister until the general election to be held in mid-2018. On August 9, the election commission of Pakistan has also instructed PML (N) to elect a new leader as a disqualified Nawaz Sharif is no longer eligible to head a political party.

Tenuous and bizarre as it sounds, the flimsy ground itself is based on another bizarre provision in the constitution of Pakistan inserted by late General Zia-ul-Huq.  Article 62 (1) (f) of the Pakistan constitution declares that “A person shall not be qualified to be elected or chosen as a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) unless he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law”.  Now, that is an exceptionally woolly requirement, especially from a politician anywhere in the world, what to speak of Pakistan and as such, a permanent tool available to the judiciary to cut short political lives of civilian leaders.

Historically, the Judiciary and the army have colluded to keep civilian leaders in check in Pakistan. Army has periodically taken over the reins and the judiciary has provided the justification for these illegal military take-overs under its ‘doctrine of necessity’.  This time, a variation seems to be playing out.  As martial law is increasingly becoming an anathema, the deep state is probably relying on the judiciary to take the lead and deliver the coup de grace. It is true that the army had nothing to do with the trigger for the action from the supreme court i.e. the Panama leaks and has largely kept itself away from any visible involvement in the matter that is sub judice.  However, the fact that two members of the six-member JIT appointed by the supreme court were from ISI and MI respectively, that the JIT submitted its report within two months and that the supreme court did not wait for outcome of an investigation into charges of corruption against Nawaz Sharif before disqualifying him on a rather shaky ground does betray extraordinary sense of purpose on part of the judiciary.  It is the same judiciary that let Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator go out of the country even though several cases are pending against him in various courts, including that of high treason under article 6 of the Constitution (Pervez Musharraf has publicly stated that the judiciary facilitated his exit on the then army chief General Raheel Sharif’s bidding).

So, how is Pakistan taking this development and what it portends for the democratic process in the beleaguered country?

Independent analysts are pointing out that it is a clear case of judicial overreach.  Some see in it the signs of the establishment getting back at a popular prime minister who had occasionally tried to pursue a relatively independent line on issues the Army considers its domain, e.g. relations with India.  At the same time, the opposition and the establishment are hailing the verdict of the apex court as restoration of a moral order in Pakistan. Their task is easy as Nawaz Sharif and his family are widely believed to have benefitted from his three tenures as prime minister. It is interesting that a large section of media too is heralding this as benign, long awaited intervention from the judiciary.  That may not be a surprise in view of the fact that the media in Pakistan, especially the visual media is highly polarised, with many TV channels unambiguously identified with either the PML (N) or the establishment.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. While it is not clear as to what will be the period of disqualification and whether Nawaz Sharif can fight the next elections at all, he has apparently decided to not take it lying down.  Sharif has publicly expressed his doubts over the motives behind the 28th July verdict and is planning to go before the people as the victim. He has already hit the road with his journey-cum-rally from Islamabad to Lahore through the GT road starting August 9.  While public response to Sharif’s rally has been mixed so far, there is no dearth of people who think he has been treated harshly.  Noted Pakistani lawyer and dissenter, Asma Jahangir – no fan of Sharif – has dubbed the ongoing court case against Nawaz Sharif as one of “regime change, not corruption”.  Nawaz Sharif continues to be a popular leader in Pakistan and his going to people would worry the opposition and the establishment who are expected to push back. In any case, in light of the deadlines laid down by the supreme court for enquiry into the corruption charges against the Sharif family – 6 weeks for filing references and another 6 months for completion of the judicial process, the period of next one year until the general election in 1918 promises to be tumultuous and the country runs the risk of lapsing into political instability once again.

Political instability, however, is the last thing Pakistan needs at the moment.  After a long time, Pakistan was beginning to see the benefits of a government enjoying a two-third majority.  In 2016-17, GDP growth crossed 5% mark for the first time in 10 years and the country is on the cusp of a significant period of investment led growth engendered by the Chinese money – loans and investment under CPEC. In any case, the PML (N) government is now expected to be preoccupied with Nawaz Sharif’s battle for political survival over next one year.  If this battle leads to political instability, that may derail an economy that is already beset with many structural challenges, particularly on the balance of payment front.  Exports, FDI and remittances, the three sources of dollar income for Pakistan present a bleak picture.  Exports, at USD 25 billion in 2013, had declined to USD 20 billion by 2016 (in the same period, exports in Bangladesh had increased from USD 25 billion to USD 45 billion).  FDI had declined from a paltry USD 3.2 billion in 2010 to more measly USD 2.76 billion in 2016 and remittances have marginally declined from USD 22 billion to USD 20 billion in last one year.  As against this, the outflow on account of imports and debt service has been increasing at a rapid pace.  Despite low oil prices, imports had shot up from USD 40 billion in 2013 to USD 52 billion in 2016. Outflow on account of debt service was at USD 9 billion in 2016. The CAD had ballooned to USD 12 billion.  Pakistan is now staring at a serious balance of payment situation.  What complicates matters is the country shoring up its forex reserves through debt for quite some time now.  In last 4 years alone, the foreign debt has increased by 35% to USD 80 billion.  Despite this, the forex reserves at USD 16 billion are barely enough for 16 weeks.  Declining Coalition Support Fund(CSF) is not helping and if US carries out its threat of totally freezing the CSF, Pakistan will become heavily dependent on the Chinese loans to stave off a debt default. That kind of dependence on China will have serious consequences for Pakistan, including that for its sovereignty.

The economy is not the only area that will be impacted adversely by a lack of focus in the wake of political instability.  Pakistan’s fight against terrorism at home will be another major casualty.  In last 4 years, the country has achieved significant success in curbing incidents of terrorist violence through a series of operations against militants operating against Pakistan (that it continues to harbour and support militants operating against India and Afghanistan is another matter).  Civilian deaths have come down from 3007 in 2012 to 612 in 2016.  In the same period, casualties among security forces have declined from 732 to 293.  However, with the civilian government and the military getting busy with each other in the event of political uncertainty, the already limited fight against terrorism will further suffer from lack of due attention. That can have serious repercussions for a country that has become a fertile ground for jihadi groups of all kinds and of its own admission, does not have the capacity to deal with all the groups simultaneously. It also means that the country will not even begin to attend to the real fight against terrorism that involves purging its madrasas, the larger education system and its various institutions, including the military, of the extremist mind set and fundamentalist ideology.

The biggest casualty of the political instability, however, would be the beleaguered democracy itself.  No Prime Minister in the history of Pakistan has completed a 5- year term ever and the first smooth transfer of power from one civilian government to another was as recent as in 2013.  Pakistan was on course to experience its second such smooth transfer through the electoral process in 2018.  One may not be too sure of that now as the country hurtles towards political instability. Pakistan has been accustomed to turning to the military at the first hint of a political crisis. Military, in turn, considers itself the only institution standing between Pakistan and apocalypse and has, therefore, traditionally arrogated to itself the right to decide whether and when a situation calls for its intervention. The fact that opposition parties are leading the charge against Sharif precludes their role in fighting on the side of democracy.  As for the larger civil society, their resolve to fight for democracy may be undermined by the discomfort they might have in siding with Nawaz Sharif, not exactly the poster boy of probity in public life.

Yet, odds against the imposition of martial law are also fairly high in today’s Pakistan. Public opinion has been against military takeovers for a while now. Moreover, the dominance of the military in all walks of life in Pakistan is so overwhelming that it does not need to impose martial law to enjoy untrammelled powers in all areas of interest such as foreign relations and defence.  Besides, taking over the messy governance may also mean accountability, something military is not used to.  The USA has also linked its financial assistance to civilian rule under the Kerry-Lugar bill, which means that all financial assistance to Pakistan will cease the moment the martial law is imposed.  The historical alliance between military and judiciary also saw a rupture in 2007 with Musharraf’s mistreatment of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The military may not be as confident of judiciary’s support for martial law this time around.

Therefore, while the fear of the outright military takeover lurks in the shadows, it is not this fear essentially that bedevils Pakistan.  A more lasting danger is that the continued overwhelming dominance of undemocratic institutions in public life seems to have got a shot in the arm from the present development wherein judicial overreach has derailed the career of a political dynast widely perceived as corrupt.  There is a distinct possibility that people will not express enough disquiet at the flagrant judicial excess because they consider Nawaz Sharif’s ouster unworthy of their outrage. This conflation of democracy with the quality of civilian leadership has been the bane of Pakistan. Also, the very idea at heart of democracy that it is the people and people alone, not army or judiciary, who can judge a government is yet to take roots in Pakistan.  Army continues to sit in judgement over the ‘performance’ of a civilian government.  Add to that the judiciary’s penchant to decide the moral compass of the civilian governments and the odds get really heavy against elected governments enjoying enough space and time to create and nurture democratic institutions.  If Pakistan has to become a stable democracy and a progressive society, this needs to change.  For that, Pakistan needs an uninterrupted civilian rule with ever increasing space for decision making for a considerable number of years.  And for that, the people of Pakistan need to come out of the spell of the judiciary and the military and take responsibility for the future of the country.  At present, there are no signs of that happening.

Will Pakistan’s future lapse into a rerun of its past? Heart hopes otherwise ….mind demurs.

Author: Pramod N Uniyal

A management professional with a deep interest in geopolitics and international relations.

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