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The Year of Democracy | Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi

Democratic institutions and processes in Pakistan managed to cope with multiple pressures in
2015. Their continuity is a matter of satisfaction for key political players. However, democratic
institutions and processes have not yet reached a non-reversible stage in terms of their spirit
and substance. The disposition of the ordinary people reflects their ambiguity towards
democracy. They prefer a participatory political system, but express disappointment in the
inability of these institutions and processes to address their socioeconomic problems.

The long-delayed local government elections were completed in Sindh and Punjab during the
period October-December 2015. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) held these elections earlier in 2015
and Balochistan completed the electoral process at the local level in 2014-15. The introduction
of elected councils at the local level engendered the hope that these could help improve the
image of democracy at the grassroot level and strengthen the attachment of the common man
with these institutions and processes. However, much depends on the performance of local
councils in rendering basic civic services to the people and improving their quality of life. The
provincial governments in Sindh and Punjab have vested little power in local bodies. In K-P, the
position of the local governments is somewhat better. In Balochistan, these councils cannot be
effective without the support of the provincial government. If sufficient development funds are
made available to local government councils and committees by the provincial governments and
are used transparently and judiciously, the people will benefit immensely. This will strengthen
their attachment, not only with the locally elected councils, but also with the democratic process
as a whole.

The key tests of the endurance of democracy are fair and free elections and the delivery of
basic services to the citizens. These institutions and processes can evoke voluntary loyalty if the
elected governments pay attention to societal security and human welfare and development.
Similarly, democracy needs to be protected from its current mix-up with corruption and
criminality. Other weaknesses that need to be addressed include the emphasis on loyalty
instead of professionalism and the ethos of traditional kinship, which characterise governance,
no matter which political party is in command.

Democracy in Pakistan faced four major challenges in 2015: the less frequent use of democratic
institutions for policymaking and political management; the inability to address human
development problems that have hampered attachment with democracy; the growing role of the
military; and the challenge of extremism and terrorism.

The elected institutions and processes have to be made relevant to policymaking and political
management. The elected parliament has not been able to acquire the focal place for
lawmaking and accountability of rulers. The prime minister hardly attends its sessions and the
federal cabinet members often shy away from attending as well. If the prime minister attends the
sessions, the presence of cabinet members will also increase. This will enhance the centrality
and prestige of parliament, especially the National Assembly. Further, the habit of holding All-
Parties Conferences to discuss important issues devalues parliament. All major parties are
represented in parliament. Thus, all key issues should be taken up there. The meetings of
federal and provincial cabinets are held less frequently. Instead, the Apex Committees meet
more frequently at the provincial level, and at the federal level, the high-powered meetings of
top civilian and military officials, presided over by the prime minister, take important policy
decisions. The National Security Committee did not hold any meeting in 2015. The post-18th
Amendment Constitution requires that the Council of Common Interests should meet at least
once in 90 days. This principle was ignored in 2015, thereby showing that there is hardly any
serious attention given to making constitutionally-recognised institutions relevant to
policymaking and enforcement.

The data on poverty and under-development as well as on children being out of school has not
shown any improvement. Similarly, education and healthcare continue to suffer from a lack of
official attention. The shortages of electricity and gas continue to add to the misery of the
people. These shortages are more acute in areas where less privileged people live. A report of
the State Bank of Pakistan showed that electricity generation increased by 1.6 per cent during
2015 and that if the existing electricity generating units produce to their capacity, the
transmission lines will not be able to carry all the electricity.

The military continues to stay on the sidelines of the political system, but its role and influence
has expanded in 2015 because of its increased role in managing internal security and fighting
terrorism. The civilian governments are conceding space to the military in civilian affairs and
seek its cooperation quite frequently. The introduction of the system of Apex Committees and
military courts has provided an institutional framework for the expanded role of the military in
civilian affairs. The corps commanders based in the provincial capitals are now linked with
provincial affairs, with reference to the implementation of the National Action Plan. At the federal
level, the army chief and the prime minister have established a functional arrangement for
decision-making on selected issues.

There has been a noticeable decline in terrorist incidents in Pakistan in 2015. The government
has, periodically, come down hard on public displays of religious and cultural extremism and
intolerance, although these challenges still require attention to bring them under control. The
questions of madrassa management and the projection of a moderate and Pakistan-based
discourse to counter the narratives of extremists have remained poorly addressed.

The year is ending with confrontation between the federal and Sindh governments on the
determination of the scope of action for the security operation by the Rangers in Karachi. The
federal government is standing by the military on this issue. However, if the demand for a similar
action by the Rangers and other federal agencies like the FIA and the NAB in Punjab is
accepted, the political interests of the PML-N will be threatened in the same manner as the
security operation in Karachi has threatened the political interests of the PPP. The new year is
expected to witness attention-grabbing political and security developments that can upset the
current cooperation between the civilian and military domains. Hopefully, democracy is able to
withstand these new as well as the intensified old challenges.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2015.