It may be messy, but Pakistan’s democracy is worth saving.
As Washington mulls the Islamic State’s advances and Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Pakistan’s democratically elected government is facing massive protests backed by some in the military and intelligence community. Led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, thousands of protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a year after his victory in an imperfect but nationally and internationally accepted election. With covert military support, Khan is also demanding new elections and Qadri a utopian political system overhaul.
Pakistani democracy is messy but military dictatorship – direct or indirect – is not the answer. So the protesters should stop currying favor with the army, and Prime Minister Sharif should work with the protestors to find a constitutional solution that covers electoral and governance reforms.
Washington should support democracy so nuclear-armed Pakistan, next door to Afghanistan, can focus on combating Al Qaeda and its partners. In the last 12 years the likes of Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, sectarian terrorists and violent separatists have killed nearly 20,000 Pakistani civilians and 6,000 security personnel. Civilian leadership over the Pakistani military will decrease provocative policies towards India like supporting insurgents today only to fight them tomorrow. Moreover, a stable South Asia needs more democracy, not less. Democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies.
The current showdown between the protestors and the government is due to last year’s national elections, the prime minister’s attempt to reign in the generals by supporting peace with India, and the trial of former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, Javed Hashmi, Khan’s number two, who was recently fired, said that Khan and Qadri plotted with the Army and its intelligence agency, ISI, to oust Prime Minister Sharif. Demanding Sharif’s resignation is the military’s attempt to regain lost power.
Last May, defying Pakistani Taliban threats, millions of Pakistanis voted for their country’s first democratic transition. With an historic turnout of 55 percent, nearly 15 million voted for the current Sharif administration and 8 million for Khan. Qadri did not even participate.
The European Union’s Election Observation Mission report called the 2013 elections the “first national elections held under legal obligations of the treaty [UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]“. The report noted “no grave violations of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates,” and stated “most of the polling booths observed were rated as satisfactory or good.”
Observers from the National Democratic Institute and Asian Network for Free Elections noted that the “administration of elections was much better than in the past and that both officials and the public were better informed.” Based on directly observing over 38,000 polling stations, Pakistan’s Free and Fair Election Network reported that 1 percent of polling stations were physically captured and 3 percent had incidents of ballot stuffing.
That said, these election observers also highlighted serious problems, including religious, sectarian and gender discrimination of candidates, and the lack of oversight of temporarily appointed vote counters by the Supreme Court. The election commission did not have the authority or resources to actively oversee vote counters or provide swift remedies.
Even after the elections were largely accepted, the Sharif administration showed poor judgment and impeded Khan’s demands for investigating voter fraud, which galvanized support against the government. Soon after, Sharif’s brother ordered the police to harass Qadri’s supporters in Punjab, and the ensuing clash left 11 dead and over 100 injured. The relatives of dead were not permitted to file a police complaint for over two months.
Certainly, the protestors have a legitimate gripe: electoral reform. Most Pakistani political parties agree on decreasing future voter fraud, but they don’t support Khan and Qadri’s solution: force the prime minister to resign, replace the Sharif administration with military-approved caretakers, and then hold new elections.
The constitutional solution lies in the halls of the parliament, not military headquarters. Sharif’s offer to facilitate an independent judicial inquiry and strengthen the parliamentary committee tasked to investigate electoral fraud are steps in the right direction. The prime minister must also support constitutional amendments to devolve power by creating new provinces, so the largest province and Sharif’s stronghold, Punjab, does not always get the lion’s share of revenues and parliamentary seats. This will go a long way in placating the legitimate discrimination against smaller provinces such as Balochistan, which is inflamed by violent separatists.
Sharif must also decrease cronyism, starting by inviting Khan and Qadri to join his cabinet, which today is dominated by Sharif’s relatives and business partners. Finally budget, foreign policy, and defense-related parliamentary committees should be strengthened to improve the civil-military balance and encourage bipartisan legislation.
Washington can help by using its leverage. Most of Pakistan’s military is armed with American weapon systems and platforms such as the F/16 fighter jets, cobra gunships, and naval surveillance platforms. Of the $28 billion in aid America gave to Pakistan over the last 12 years, $11 billion was in direct support of combating terrorists and insurgents. While the Pakistani military did go after armed groups directly threatening its existence, it has yet to eradicate groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, which have wreaked havoc in Afghanistan and India.
For years the United States gave billions to Pakistani generals to gain security for Washington and stability in Islamabad; today there is little of both. Besides putting pressure on Pakistani generals to go after the entire Al Qaeda conglomerate, Washington should continue to make its aid conditional on the existence and stability of Pakistani democracy.
Pakistan has a plethora of problems: economic decline, ubiquitous terrorism, government inefficacy and corruption and the ultimate failure of creating an inclusive nation state. But Pakistan today has a few silver linings. In the last three weeks, leaders of 11 political parties spoke in favor of constitutional democracy, urging the prime minister not to resign under pressure from protestors. The current chief of the army, General Raheel Sharif, seems to have backed off from overtly supporting the protesters, and many in the media are openly criticizing the retired generals and spy chiefs involved in supporting Khan and Qadri.
At the same time, many parliamentarians are chiding the Sharif administration for slow economic growth and cronyism. This is the beginning of constitutional democracy – when political winners and losers resolve differences in the parliament without colluding with generals or inciting violence. To encourage this trend, Washington should reinforce conditions for foreign aid to Pakistan, including those related to strengthening democracy and combating terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network.
Democracy is messy; just look at the aftermath of the Arab spring and the current crisis in Iraq. Still, if democracy is consolidated with inclusive politics, it outlives and outperforms any dictatorship.
Haider Ali Hussein Mullick is a lecturer at the Naval Post Graduate School and Adjunct Professor at the Naval War College.