Democracy’s moment

Published: May 8, 2012

The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The annual Youm-e-Shuhada (Martyrs’ Day) ceremony, held on April 30 at the General Head Quarters, was impressive and solemn, paying homage to our brave soldiers who laid their lives in defence of the country. It was also an occasion that provided moral and emotional support to those who have lost their near and dear ones. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani deserves credit for creating this tradition by institutionalising the event.

Recent tragic incidents, especially Siachen and Salala, cast a deep shadow on this year’s function. These two episodes were also a reminder of Pakistan’s crisis-ridden relationships with India and the US.

Martyrs’ day reminds us that the sacrifices by our soldiers and civilians cannot be wasted by our misdeeds and weaknesses elsewhere. It was, perhaps, for this reason that the chief of army staff used the occasion to convey some meaningful and nuanced messages. His categorical support for democracy was reassuring, especially at a time when the civilian government is shaky and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is fighting a political battle of survival against a court judgment. Despite the shabby state of affairs, international and domestic conditions have restrained the army from taking power directly. Politically, for the army, taking power again makes little sense as the country is becoming increasingly ungovernable and full of risks for it. Although many people feel frustrated with poor governance and yearn for a return to military rule, the army may think otherwise given its own political interests.

General Kayani also remarked that all institutions should remain within their constitutional limits. This was significant and ironic, considering how the army had crossed constitutional red lines on several occasions in the past. Staying within boundaries applies to all institutions including the judiciary. In its sincere effort in trying to get rid of the corrupt and rent-seeking practices of certain politicians and bureaucrats, the judiciary, at times, tends to usurp the powers of the executive. Clearly, the status of the higher judiciary gives it a certain amount of immunity. But when it goes too far to impose its authority in every field of the executive it could, inadvertently, and even in good faith, abuse our democratic system. All institutions need to calibrate their actions within their constitutional mandate or they risk creating an impression that they believe that ends justify the means. On the contrary, ends and means should both be within the ambit of the law.

Pakistan’s central issue revolves around accountability and balance of power within institutions. By repeatedly engaging in corruption, failing to provide even the basics of governance and avoiding accountability, the government has brought out the worst in our individual leaders and institutions. Politicians are elected to lead and to stand for the rule of law. The executive’s dismal performance has meant an abject failure of leadership. There is no respect for the social contract that is supposed to exist between the state and the individual. Political parties are being used to keep their leaders in power instead of solving the country’s problems. There is a need to call the whole system back to some sort of order.

The question then arises: is the opposition party, the PML-N, capable of providing an alternative political and strategic paradigm? Or, can Imran Khan harness a movement to build Pakistan anew? At this time, Imran has constructed a platform that touches many populist buttons and has developed a fairly impressive following. He has been staying out of elections and is advising the PML-N and other political parties to resign from parliament. This move could have unintended consequences. Launching anti-government demonstrations in the form of public rallies against the government is an acceptable practice even in mature democracies but operating outside the loop could undermine the very system that Imran himself would need if and when he came to power. He is a rejectionist and is justified in his opposition to politics that is hierarchical and restricted to certain families. But besides projecting the ugly side of opponents, it is important that he looks at the broader picture, works toward institutional balance and harnesses forces that can tackle major issues confronting the country. In short, only that party which reinvents Pakistan for the 21st century will succeed. For this, it must develop a working consensus among major institutions and harness the forces of modernisation. Clearly, it is democracy’s moment that our leaders have to seize and build on. The consequences of failure could be horrendous, leading to anarchy and the country ending up with some form of authoritarian religious or military regime.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Logic Europe
    May 8, 2012 - 1:16AM

    time for courts accountability ,as it seems they have no fear.

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  • jahandad
    May 8, 2012 - 2:01AM

    Before democracy ,is the security ,we should secure peace in our country both internally and potentially externally, democracy in present form if continues will need only a couple of years for the country to collapse irreversibly,Peace is achieved when you have the desire and the capability for it,and today we have the capability but no political desire for actions,,,,,,,i am afraid if you allow the so called today’s lustful ,corrupt and selfish politicians to continue another couple of years ,then definitely you will also loose the capability as well, and example is Karachi ,with many other places to follow,,we NEED justices first,apply the law to all and its over, you don’t have a single current political face to stand for election, ,,,,AND result is automatic change of scenario ,with fresh somewhat patriotic faces,,,,and may be DEMOCRACY CREEPING A BIT IN RIGHT DIRECTION , HOPE SO,,,,,

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  • Max
    May 8, 2012 - 2:16AM

    I agree with the author that army should stay out of political corridors. The issue of governability is becoming acute and perhaps somewhat cumbersome. The causes can be several from culture of nepotism to widespread corruption. The way Pakistan defines its democracy is nothing more than shallow drum-beating. Democracy involves intense sense of responsibility, and a concept of public service.
    Regrettably our politician is self centered, corrupt, and to be honest just populist know-nothing.What Pakistan needs is strengthening of institutions where office-holders may act in a responsible and prudent manner. Yes! politician is know-nothing, will the the Chief Justice exhibit some prudence? Pakistan is not someone’s private property and the Chief Justice is not colonial Thanaydar or at least should not behave like one.

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  • jahandad
    May 8, 2012 - 2:18AM

    NO chance of hopes from theses politicians and their third class democracy,,,,,,Pakistan need a change, and that will come when justice is applied to all,which will disqualify and put behind the bars almost all politicians,,,,,AND then a change will occur with new faces with little bet patriotism and ghairat,,,and then only DEMOCRACY WILL CREEP IN PAKISTAN,,,,,,,

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  • Mirza
    May 8, 2012 - 2:36AM

    I must admit that I am astounded by this balanced and pragmatic Op Ed. I have great dislike for the rich generals of the poor Pakistan. However, I am impressed by your writing. Perhaps there comes a time in the retired officer’s lives that they rise beyond their perks and their fellows.
    There cannot be a viable Pakistan unless we stop wasting billions on defence competing with big boys. We are a tiny poor economy and there is no way we can keep on spending on huge army and develop hundreds of nuclear bombs. The people need food, education, healthcare and other basic necessities not the bombs. With the money sources drying up, even IK or any other leader cannot do a thing to improve the plight of masses. In addition, Pakistan is not a country (just like India) where one party can win and rule. Nobody knows more than two names from PTI except the recent lotas. The elections would be contested on each seat and they need people who can win those otherwise there would again be the same coalition govt, perhaps with the inclusion of PTI. Last but not the least, the popularity of any general no matter who they are can be judged from the fact that they would lose in Karachi, Lahore, Multan, and other major cities unless they are a part of a major party.

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  • jahandad
    May 8, 2012 - 2:44AM

    The cat sees dreams of roasted rats,and ends up with sour grapes,,AND that even poisoned ,,,, Democracy is as the mullah knows the taste of halwa ,as the political lotas know the diamonds and jewels under the chair,,,,,,,,CHANGE CAN OCCUR,when there is a nation ,and a nation is made up of like minded good people,which are rare in Pakistan political democracy which in reality is worst autocracy,,,,,Recommend

  • Falcon
    May 8, 2012 - 3:38AM

    Talat Sahab-
    A great article in general. I specially liked the insightful advice that has been given to IK. In general, I have noticed PTI is trying to avoid getting onto streets as much as possible because of the uncontrollable consequences of mass demonstration. But I must say that I have also noticed that the young blood that PTI is catering to is over-whelmed with the desire to come out in the streets. I think taking out few benign rallys such as those of solidarity with judiciary might be fine as long as it keeps the system from imploding because of pent-up steam and frustration.

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  • AllahRukha
    May 8, 2012 - 5:46AM

    What kind of democracy are you talking about Mr. General? The kind where the president goes to vacation in France while the nation suffers the worst floods………

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  • OS
    May 8, 2012 - 6:23AM

    Thank you, General Talat, for pointing out honestly that the consequences of a reactionary military regime are far worse. Let’s hope our parties realize what is at stake. We are still reeling from four murderous dictators and now have to deal with mediocre politicians to say the least. This is the moment that will decide where we are heading. May democracy win.

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  • Singh
    May 8, 2012 - 8:02AM

    “Despite the shabby state of affairs, international and domestic conditions have restrained the army from taking power directly. Politically, for the army, taking power again makes little sense as the country is becoming increasingly ungovernable and full of risks for it.
    It sum up whole situation. When army avoiding current condition of Pakistan then what else do you expect. I think PPP is doing much better job by staying in power to just get battered every day & by every one.
    When time is right army will not loose a minute to ride a saddle of power to enjoy the perks.

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  • BlackJack
    May 8, 2012 - 9:51AM

    Another sober and well-structured article. On the point of Imran Khan (although I don’t agree with his politics and definitely not with his choice of friends), despite being outside the system currently, he seems to be inadvertently strengthening democracy in Pakistan – merely by existing. His ‘new lamps for old’ proposition may be far removed from reality, but presents an attractive alternative to a military takeover or a return to the halcyon days of Gen Musharraf, and keeps people rooting for civilian leadership in the future.

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  • usmani
    May 8, 2012 - 1:04PM

    .” Although many people feel frustrated with poor governance and yearn for a return to military rule, the army may think otherwise given its own political interests.”

    No Genral sb ,people are may be frustrated with the poor governance but they are not yearning
    for military Rule . This is your own invention.Public have seen the results of 3-4 long army rule and they know that millitary rule have given them nothing.They are in the mode to give democracy little more time so it take roots.New parties like of PTI will emerge that will give the democracy new blood.A tradition of fair and free election would give the system new life and hope the governance and law and order situation will improve.

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  • observer
    May 8, 2012 - 4:18PM

    Politically, for the army, taking power again makes little sense as the country is becoming increasingly ungovernable and full of risks for it.

    OK, So the army would like to rule only during times of relative peace. And having mucked up the situation would like to let the politicians face the music.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 8, 2012 - 5:35PM

    Sir,

    Are you sure “many people” are yearning for military rule? I did not think I would hear that from someone I have admired for years for your good sense and balanced views.

    I agree the the present situation is precarious. But another (!!) military take-over is NOT the answer.

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  • elelmentary
    May 10, 2012 - 5:45PM

    Spectacular failure of our political govenments to provide a decent corruption free governance, and a consequent complete collapse of society-government relation creates a horrible gaping void.Other institutions (judiciary/army) then struggle not to be dragged/sucked into this vacuum.Damned if they do damned if they don’t.

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