Every which way you look, it ends well.
As we peer into the coming weeks, a decisive year end stares back at us. In the next few days the decision about the army leadership would have been taken and notified. By next month the Panama Leaks case in the Supreme Court would either be settled or will be at an advanced stage. Some will rejoice. Others will hurt. But we shall most likely be in net positive.
The Prime Minister’s decision about the Chief of the Army Staff can go two ways: either he gives an extension to General Raheel Sharif, or he appoints his successor. If he opts for the extension, he will be exercising a power that his office provides him. There will be debate on whether it was the right or wrong decision and the repercussions it will have on the power dynamics of individuals and institutions, but this discourse will take place in the space provided for exactly such a discourse in a pluralistic and democratic landscape.
If the prime minister appoints a new army chief, the incumbent will receive thanks from a grateful nation and fade into honourable and dignified retirement. He will leave very big shoes to fill, but that is what all successful people do once they vacate space for their successors. In this case, we shall witness an institutional transfer of power with the baton changing hands in a formal ceremony.
In both eventualities there will be differing opinions on individuals and their preferences but no one will point a finger at any institutional or systemic weakness. At a time when we need stability, continuity and stronger institutional influence on key decisions, the extension or appointment of the army chief in the next few days spells a win-win for the system.
The Panama Leaks case is slightly complicated but not by much. Consider the broad possibilities: one, the court decides against the Sharifs; two, the court exonerates them of charges. The first possibility has two sub-possibilities: first, one or more children of the Prime Minister are implicated while the prime minister himself is not; second, the prime minister too is judged to have been guilty.
If the prime minister’s children are found guilty, he too will be impacted indirectly. This impact may not be legal but on moral grounds he will take a hit. Whether this translates into a steep political cost or not will get known as the situation unfolds but the prime minister will remain in office on legal grounds. His family will be the net loser but the system would have been strengthened as a long-standing question about suspect financial dealings of the Sharif family would have been answered. The system would also have been strengthened through an independent judicial process that held the children of the highest office holder in the land to account.
In the eventuality of the prime minister being found guilty, he would stand disqualified. This too is a procedure that had earlier played out in the case of the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. In a repeat of that situation, the ruling PML-N will then — as per rules — nominate another person from amongst its ranks for the office of the prime minister, and that nominee will sail through the vote-of-confidence into office. Yes the ruling party will take a hit in terms of public perception but it will still remain in power till the next election. The system would have allowed an intra-party transition thereby setting a precedent that political convulsions do not have to rock the system but rather can be handled via the system itself.
The second broad possibility is the prime minister and his children getting a clean chit from the Supreme Court. In this case the net loser will be Imran Khan and his party. Both will get a severe hit to their credibility and their politics and will need a Herculean effort to recover from this jolt. However the system would yet again emerge as the winner since a major political issue would have been resolved without resort to any unconstitutional means.
There is much to be said about Pakistan being in net positive in terms of political maturity. A peaceful transition of power in 2018 would be a milestone in our evolution towards a stable democracy — a stark, and dare I say proud contrast to most of the Muslim world which remains burdened under tinpot dictators, kings, sheikhs and assorted megalomaniacs.
A smooth transition in 2018 would also illustrate something deeply significant: a reduced dependence on the armed forces to settle problems of governance. Or to put it another way, a shrinking space for any unconstitutional adventurism by ambitious individuals. In time such political progression would also change the focus of debate from ‘military rule vs democracy’ to ‘inefficient democracy vs better form of democracy’.
Such a focus could have a far-reaching impact on the evolution of the existing system into something reflecting the will of the people with greater accuracy and transparency. Once khaki shadows recede, political parties will have to face up to the fact that this system of democracy that catapults them to the top is crippled by its exclusionary nature. These political parties will have to deal with the abhorrence of closed dynastic hierarchies that slam shut the doors of politics to educated young women and men of Pakistan if they do not feed on the crumbs of patronage thrown their way in return for absolute personal loyalty to the dynasts and their off-springs. This is a system begging for reform.
For reform to happen, stability has to ensue. We are a little more than a year shy of reaching a milestone which can pave the way for better things. For this to happen we need to tide over the next few weeks which — if we subtract the individual losses — should turn out net positive for Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2016.
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