“While there are many reasons for the manifestations of political instability, the democratic transition, particularly in 2013 after the government completed its term for the first time, signify that there is a consolidation of democracy and civilian rule,” Ambassador Robin Raphel said at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Coming from an individual whose stint as the Senior Adviser on Pakistan to the Special Af-Pak Representative involved a strained phase of relations between the United States and Pakistan, this remark signalled a positive development.
The occasion was the book launch of Raza Rumi’s new book The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition and the event challenged the prevalent narrative of a state constantly on the brink of failure. Rumi’s presentation about his book and speakers’ comments provided slivers of optimism regarding Pakistan’s future. The panelists, Raphel and Afganistan-Pakistan expert Marvin Weinbaum offered rich insights into the past and present of Pakistan’s turbulent democracy.
Rumi’s latest book chronicles the complex narratives of a country comprising 200 million people striving for a more plural and inclusive society, evolving mainstream political parties, and robust civic movements, with social media playing an important role in national conversations.
The Fractious Path is a collection of essays written between 2008-2013. Speaking about his book, Rumi summed up Pakistan’s experience from 2008 to 2013 into six broad trends: a powerful and sometimes overbearing judiciary and deregulated media which impacted the performance of civilian government, the passage of 18th Amendment, ratified in 2010, which devolved more power from the center to the provinces, continued regional conflict in Afghanistan, the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban as an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban which targeted civilian/military/state institutions, once promising Indo-Pak relations thwarted by rogue non-state actors during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the resurgence of women and youth in the politico-economic sphere.
Raphel asserted that the peaceful transition marked by the transfer of power from one civilian government to another civilian government indicated substantive change. This is a change strengthened by schemes for tax reform, privatisation, energy security diversification and counter-terrorism measures like Zarb-i-Azb which are clearly steps in the right direction.
However, only further institutional reform can render the internal landscape conducive to real and greater change. Raphel also stressed that the civilian government should “keep up with the demands of modern society by infusing the bureaucracy with accountability, efficiency, and integrity.” Civil service reform is essential for this, as is the need to widen the tax base for a fiscally sound government, among other things.
Therefore, these vibrant, alternative voices alone will not prevent military adventurism and interference based on the pretext of compensating basic governance voids. While Weinbaum commended the transition of 2013, he stated that “I’m worried.” Even though the Pakistani head of state is not clad in a uniform, the civilian government still yields to the army to avert the ever-looming prospects of a coup. And with Pakistani public opinion against the United States, America cannot do much with respect to effective policy measures. Nonetheless, Weinbaum did extol many Track II initiaitves like the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan and the US – Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism for the cultivation of future leaders and opinion makers.
It is evident from Rumi’s writings that Pakistan is not a lost cause. Civil society and human rights defenders as well as the youth voices in Pakistan are potent agents of change. Rumi highlighted that during 2008-2013, women parliamentarians conducted majority of legislative business and are now a dynamic force in the future of Pakistan’s politics.
As the nation approaches seventy years of its existence, the need for strengthening political institutions and democratic processes appears to never have been more urgent. While ‘counter-narratives’ rouse people into conversations, social apathy, corruption, and nepotism require strengthening of institutions through the democratic process as well as political party reform. That would be the best way to keep the military out of politics, Rumi said.