The way ahead

Weak democratic character of political parties indirectly facilitates hold & dominance of army leadership in politics

Talat Masood April 17, 2024
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board


The country is passing through a difficult phase where politics is chaotic and democratic norms are flouted. The economy is heavily reliant on foreign assistance and loans. Its relations with neighbours are tense and with India bordering on open hostility. With Afghanistan we need to build greater level of mutual trust.

It is seldom that we reflect that Pakistan after seventy-six years of its existence has not been able to develop a normal democratic culture. There has to be an open debate as to why it is that the political parties remain under the grip of powerful families and fail to pursue democratic practices to elect their leadership in the real sense. When political parties are not democratic how it can be expected that they would promote democracy and throw up the right leadership. Stunting democratic values is undermining the potential and strength of our nation. When a system is not fair and open to self-correction it undermines national institutions and breeds frustration in the society. One of the major impulses of Pakistan’s younger generation is to look for opportunities and new avenues abroad as they feel that they would not get a fair deal in their country. More significantly, a weak leadership is unable to address the serious challenges the country is facing. Feeble civilian leadership leads to intervention and a larger role for the army and bureaucracy in framing of national policies and decision making. This further distorts democratic functioning and process of accountability and weakens national strength and the country’s standing.

The question is how to address these weaknesses and why serious efforts in the past, if any, have not been successful. A glaring example is that political leadership to retain their hold on top positions is not interested and deliberately avoiding free and fair elections within their parties. When their leadership is challenged and demand for free and fair elections starts picking momentum those leaders responsible for initiating the move are sidelined. The most recent example of this was evident when former PM Shahid Khakan Abbasi and some others raised their concerns were sidelined and had to quit PML-N. They have since been struggling to form a new political party, which by no means is an easy task. PTI despite efforts to decimate it manages to retain significant following which poses a challenge to the establishment.

The weak democratic character of political parties indirectly facilitates the hold and dominance of army leadership in politics. Most disconcerting aspect is that legal aberrations and even constitutional deviations by the government are being accepted as a norm, without any significant opposition or clamor. This indifference toward democratic drift is reflected in the attitude of the people as well which is very disconcerting.

As regards the economy the focus of successive governments in the past civilian or army dominated, has been to borrow money from IMF and other lending agencies. Negotiating a successful deal with IMF is considered a high point with the government. There is hardly any serious discussion regarding Pakistan attaining self-reliance. For the leadership it should be a matter of serious concern that a country of 240 million people, nuclear and strategically located, continues to depend on foreign assistance year after year. Apparently, this will be the 24th deal with IMF in seventy-six years of the nation’s life. This is somewhat similar to a person who is addicted to living on borrowed money and loses the urge to earn enough to live on his own. The greatest challenge for the government is to develop a self-sustaining economy. Until a decade or so India too was dependent on external assistance but responsible leadership and astute management of resources it has achieved self-reliance. The credit largely goes to PM Modi and his team to have steered the economy in right direction. His oversight and personal rapport with major industrialists and entrepreneurs have facilitated development and economic growth.

It appears there is not sufficient realisation or emphasis by our leaders on the importance of creating an environment of collaboration between political parties and with state institutions and working towards a common goal. The political parties could have different plans or approach toward achieving certain common national goals. But by undermining each other national effort is dissipated and this is what is generally happening at present. A classic example of this was recently witnessed when PTI as a political party was decimated. This was clearly not a sensible move to put it mildly. It was a sad reflection of the conflictual and bizarre nature of our country’s politics.

Moreover, the recent happenings in the country wherein certain political parties were decimated and others given special treatment doubts arise regarding our maturity and civilised conduct in our dealings with each other. These are not trivial issues that could be ignored and set aside. Apart from affecting productivity it casts a shadow on the national image and its reputation. Moreover, these clash with universal norms of fairness and justice.

The present rate of economic growth of around 2% should be a matter of serious concern for the leadership. Our greatest national challenge is to build a viable expanding economy at a rate at 6% so as to liberate ourselves from dependence. One does not see that resolve or undertaking. There are other critical areas that need to be addressed. We have to come out of the syndrome of manipulating elections, harassing the opposition, interfering in the freedom of the press, jailing people by the hundreds many amongst them being honest and innocent. These characteristics reflect poorly on the sad state of the nation and have serious repercussions. This is not a wish list but the only path to bring the country closer toward real democracy and an environment conducive for economic growth and stability.

Pakistan is best served when politicians and elected leaders work through formal democratic institutions. There are tendencies among the leaders to bypass institutions that need to be curbed. An efficient bureaucracy and better civil-military relations will contribute significantly towards improving productivity and overall efficiency. The government is expected to work towards achieving these goals by ensuring greater level of cooperation among institutions.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2024.

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