Saving democracy -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Saving democracy

By: Rasul Bakhsh Rais

If we learn from our own history — troubled history indeed — Pakistan’s future stability, growth and progress is linked to democracy. No other system can work or will work. We have experienced four undemocratic systems covering almost half of our life as a nation and we have seen how they have ruined this country — actually shaking its foundations that included the separation of East Pakistan.

Is there a danger to democracy today? Yes, it is from the institutional clash that may generate social and political choas. For long we have evaded discussing the question directly — are the political executive and the judiciary in conflict with each other? We need to fathom what it means and what effect it might have for the institutional balance, constitutional order and our fragile democracy. It is fragile primarily because the political norms around the constitutional order are limited and weak. The problem is further compounded by an anaemic rule of law tradition and a questionable representational system.

Countries in democratic transition can live with a small endowment of democratic values and traditions if the major players, forces and actors within the political order wish to play the political game according to rules. Weak democracies can build the democratic heritage with consensus driven by self-interest. Poor values are a factor in pulling a fragile democracy down.

Rather, it is drawing of confrontational lines and rigid positions that might cause the fall; this is how post-Bangladesh democracy met its fate. Today, the actors are different but we have more points of confrontations — two insurgencies, ethnic conflict in Karachi and a militant mindset.

What may, however, cause the fourth democratic debacle is the clash between the judiciary and the executive. They have drawn their battle lines very clearly and stand rigidly guarding their positions. The Supreme Court wants to act as a no-nonsense court and take decisions with the frame of mind of ‘come what may’ with a purist juridical reasoning of rule of law. This line has supporters in the civil society, part of the media and part of the lawyers’ community.

The political executive — a system of power organized, managed and run by President Asif Ali Zardari so shrewdly — has taken the last, firm and inflexible position of never writing a ‘letter’ to the Swiss court for reopening cases against him. The president’s camp has democratic credentials, mass support, parliament and political allies on its side and is even capable of changing the rules of the game: the new contempt of court law.

Who may benefit from the clash, why and at what cost? The political executive has done so poorly in governance over its entire term. It would love to play the card of ‘judicial victimization’ as it is doing to its political benefit. By not writing the letter, it has not lost much except sending Yousaf Raza Gilani home, which the PPP lot finds to be a secret blessing because of his incompetence and perceived corruption. However, publicly, they would like to exploit the matter to their own advantage.

Sadly, we see the two institutions — the executive and the judiciary — escalating the crisis. In two weeks’ time, we will know how it goes; the signs are ominous enough: more political mayhem.

The looming chaos may cost us democracy and such a cost may actually benefit the PPP and its allies if we have some undemocratic interlude. The interval will whitewash all sins. The political martyrs will re-emerge clean and popular with a victim card around their necks.

Purist judicial reasoning or rigid positions are poor tools in the game of politics. They don’t work at all. Politics requires patience, restraint, compromise and giving space. This is what we need in order to save democracy.


The Express Tribune