Prospects amidst uncertainty
As the noose around the Sharifs tightens, the brothers have had an over three hours meeting at Nawaz Sharif’s Jati Umra residence to discuss the PML-N’s leadership crisis, strategy for the upcoming Senate polls and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases against them. Topping the agenda according to reports was the issue of appointing a new party head after the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the provisions of the Elections (Amendment) Act 2017 relating to a disqualified person heading a party. In principle, the decision is to appoint Shahbaz Sharif as an acting president of PML-N until he can be formally elected by the General Council of the party after the Senate elections next month.
While cogitating these issues, the PML-N is also keeping a watchful eye on the general elections in July-August this year. Some observers are wondering if something similar to what happened to the PML-N Senate candidates in being declared independents by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) after Nawaz Sharif was barred by the SC from being party chief may not be in store vis-à-vis the general elections too. For some, the comeback of Nawaz Sharif after his double disqualification (from the premiership and party head) through huge enthusiastic public rallies invoke memories of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s similar comeback after the military coup of 1977 that overthrew his government. That event ended in tragedy. Perhaps the powers-that-be have calculated there is no need to go so far this time. Instead, after his disqualification as premier, Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif have been enmeshed in case after case by NAB, a time honoured tactic in our political history to harass political opponents and keep them twirling between courtroom appearances.
One could also speculate whether the arrest of Ahad Cheema (which has provoked a protest by the Pakistan Administrative Services) was of a piece with the attempt (stopped halfway) in recent years to knock out Asif Zardari’s ‘props’ in the shape of cronies and front men. After all, the powers-that-be have surely not gone to all the trouble of disqualifying Nawaz Sharif twice and keeping him and his family hopping between NAB cases only to let the PML-N win the Senate and general elections.
The ‘reduction’ of the Senate PML-N candidates to independents has opened the door to horse trading, according to some analysts. Buying Senate votes would be aimed at preventing PML-N garnering a plurality if not a majority in the upper house. If fair and free general elections are held in July-August, on present trends the PML-N is likely to win on the basis of its undiminished support in Punjab. Would the PML-N be allowed to be in power with control or at least influence in both houses of parliament for a new five-year term? That would seem to contradict the whole effort since the Panama case.
Veteran lawyer S M Zafar says the masses want an end to confrontation amongst state institutions. He believes the crisis can be resolved by taking the path of truth. He considers the SC verdict against Nawaz Sharif to be based on a weak argument that contradicts the people’s constitutional right to universal franchise, freedom of association and the right to form and choose leaders for political parties. The implication being that Articles 62 and 63, inserted in the Constitution by evil military dictator General Ziaul Haq for malign purposes, do not provide a solid foundation for the SC’s findings. Others have urged people to avoid taking political questions to the (currently willing to entertain) courts to avoid the double jeopardy of judicialising politics (already underway) and the politicisation of the judiciary (a trend embryonically beginning). Some like the Awami National Party’s (ANP's) Ehsan Wyne have once again reminded us that half the country was lost in 1971 because of a failure to respect the electorate’s mandate.
In Pakistan’s 70-year history, the tussle between unelected but powerful state institutions over representative ones has been a permanent affliction. Apart from brief, unusual periods, the former have dominated. Today, the scenario resembles nothing more than the triumph of the unelected state institutions over the representative ones.
Historically, the struggle for real democracy that emanated from the west with the advent of capitalism went through many twists and turns and even bloodshed before parliament’s supremacy was firmly established. The franchise too expanded gradually to overcome wealth, education and other restrictions alongside extending the vote to all sections of the people, women being the last beneficiaries, before universal franchise was accepted as the norm.
Countries like Pakistan could and should benefit from the costs and sacrifices of those who came before and finally produced the triumph of democracy. That history provides the foundations of a genuine democratic system. But if our political ‘model’ then tries to limit parliament’s supremacy or emasculate representative institutions through spurious juxtapositions such as that the Constitution (a creature that parliament is empowered to amend) stands above parliament, it lends the basic law of the land a mystical ‘permanent’ character that is belied by the power of parliament to rewrite it.
In the country that is considered to have given the world the ‘mother of all parliaments’, Britain, there is no written constitution. Everything is judged on the basis of evolved conventions and precedent. There, theoretically, parliament has the power to declare a man a woman and vice versa, even in the face of the facts. Of course we can only dream of such power to our parliament in what is emerging as a hybrid democratic system.
The continuing tussle between unelected and representative institutions that has remained the hallmark of our history seems set to be prolonged, exacerbating the present atmosphere of uncertainty that may itself explode in our faces if not handled wisely. There is too much precedent for this eventuality in our history for us to be sanguine about the instability that threatens.
The struggle for a genuine democracy that has consumed so much time, effort and blood in our history represents still the terrain on which future battles are likely to be fought. Liberal, democratic and progressive forces cannot but engage in this struggle for their own survival in the face of regressive unelected state institutions’ policies and non-state actors. More likely than not, this struggle will pave the path to progressive political, economic and social change too. Without it, our state and society are doomed to sink into anarchy, chaos and barbarism.