Pakistan is a massive country that is full of enormous potential but beset by immense challenges. Leveraging its strengths and overcoming its weaknesses is beyond the ability of one man, team, or party. To make Pakistan what it ought to be — a democratic, prosperous, and secure country that respects the dignity and rights of each and every one of its citizens and is a force for good in the world — requires a collective effort and reform from the top down and bottom up.
Deep and lasting reform can only take place through a legitimate, uninterrupted democratic system. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis don’t have the patience for democracy. Sixty-one percent of those polled in a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll this year say they favour a “strong hand” — i e, a ‘clean’ and ‘effective’ authoritarian — over democracy. It’s hard for the average Pakistani to have faith in democracy when he or she is kept in the dark, both by prolonged power cuts and a political process that tends to shut him or her out. But patience isn’t merely a virtue — it can also be of great material value.
Consider this: the present hung parliament has managed to pass three major constitutional amendments unanimously. The Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth amendments are landmark achievements in Pakistan’s history — perhaps, second only to the 1973 Constitution. They represent the political class’ attempts to collectively determine the rules of the game and how the system works. These amendments are rooted in the 2006 Charter of Democracy (CoD), which is a by-product of lessons learned by the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif while in exile. In his first two years as president, Asif Ali Zardari played games with Mian Sahab. Their March 2008 Murree Accord gave hope that the CoD would become a reality. But Zardari backtracked and said that the agreement was neither the Quran, nor the Hadith, and so he had no obligation to fulfil his commitment.
Since 2010, Zardari has managed to acquire some perspective, allowing his party and the PML-N to agree on and implement the requirements of the three aforementioned amendments. Now, thanks to the Eighteenth Amendment, the PPP and the PML-N have for the first time come to agreement on a consensus chief election commissioner. And in the coming weeks, a bipartisan committee mandated by the Twentieth amendment will allow them to agree on who will run the next caretaker government.
These changes won’t put the lights back on, fill the state exchequer, or stop drone attacks, target killers, and terrorists. But they will help allow Pakistan to have legitimate, popularly-supported governments that serve more or less their full terms. And that in turn will give the politicians a chance to govern and voters an opportunity to reward or punish them based on performance. An election cycle or two later, failed politicians could return mending their ways, resulting in a system that becomes less imperfect.
Effective, issues-based parliamentary coalition building will be key to keep the ball rolling. There will be ample opportunity for that after the next elections. Most likely, we’ll see another hung parliament with the PML-N and the PPP forming the top two followed distantly by the MQM and the PTI. The third and fourth place parties will be courted by the two above them. So what if both the MQM and the PTI decide to make their joining the next coalition government contingent upon the PML-N or the PPP agreeing to a comprehensive reform of the tax system? More revenue for the government means more funds for education and development and less dependency on foreign governments.
Similar approaches can be used to push for other necessary reforms: revamping the sclerotic bureaucracy; cutting red tape to boost business growth and encourage foreign direct investment; and remedying a failing judicial system from the bottom up.
Those who are waiting for Superman should know that he will never arrive. Pakistan will reach its full potential when imperfect women and men in parliament rise to their better selves. Their moral cognition will be made more lucid when it is the voter, not the army chief, who holds a sword of Damocles above their heads.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2012.