Assessing the State of Democracy | Talat Masood

The press and electronic media are frequently reminding us that the civil and military leaderships are on the ‘same page’ and there exists a smooth relationship between the two. This is only partially true. Considering that we have a long history of direct military rule and that even during civilian tenures there has been a pervasive influence of the military in foreign, defence and internal security matters, the imbalance in favour of the military is taken as a normal phenomenon. The reality, however, is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during the current tenure, has tactically conceded additional powers to the military in its traditional areas of interest and in return has developed a good working relationship with the institution. In essence, civilians are losing space to the military through incompetence, infighting and a poor public image. Where will this slide end and how damaging is it for the country’s national interest, are serious questions that need to be addressed.

Formulation of the Afghan policy, relations with the Taliban and facilitating talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, all fall under the purview of the military, with little contribution from the political leadership. With India, too, it is the military that primarily influences policy, whether it is the Kashmir issue, progress on the Mumbai case or granting of the MFN status. With the US, it is Pakistan’s contribution to the security and stability of Afghanistan that determines the quality of relations.

On the domestic front, due to the incompetence of civilian governments over the years, the primary responsibility of the internal security of Karachi has shifted to the Rangers. In Fata, where the military has cleared militant sanctuaries, civil authority has yet to assume responsibility. In Swat, the army remains deployed to maintain peace whereas it was expected that the civilian government would have started normal functioning by now.

In addition, the government has undermined its political power by remaining disinterested in parliament and in the functioning of important committees that deal with foreign policy, national security and defence. The Public Accounts Committee, too, seems to have lost its power and importance.

The opposition’s role in weakening political parties has been no less influential. While Imran Khan’s agitation-based politics and crusade against corruption may have raised awareness among the people of their rights, conversely these have also been a huge drag on institutional development and have contributed towards destabilising our fragile democratic structure. The PTI’s indifference towards legislative matters and major national and international issues betrays Khan’s obsession with a single-point agenda of electoral reforms and dislodging the government.

The PPP’s performance during its previous stint at the federal level and its present quality of governance in Sindh is a slur on its leadership. Its callous attitude in parliament as an opposition party has further soiled its reputation.

The Rangers’ present drive in Karachi to link corruption with terrorism has tightened the squeeze on political parties and degraded politicians in the eyes of the public. With such serious shortcomings in our political parties, it is not surprising that it has provided the military with the opportunity to fill the vacuum and extend its influence in affairs that normally fall in the civilian domain.

The military richly deserves praise for the sacrifice of its valiant soldiers and the single-minded and resolute determination of General Raheel Sharif to combat insurgency. It has truly changed the course in favour of the state. But until military success is combined with civilian law enforcement and development, peace will be short-lived. The government should address issues of governance, take the lead in spreading education and create economic opportunities in Fata. It seems oblivious of its responsibilities in this regard.

As the military gains success in battling insurgency and expands its reach in civilian affairs, it has created an impressive profile on the national scene. Modern sophisticated techniques also help in its image-building that is being used astutely by its media managers and rather amateurishly by the civilian leadership.

However, it is worth learning from our own and other countries’ experience regarding the consequences of the prolonged dominance of the military on the domestic and international scene. Here, the relevant question is: does this serve the long-term interest of the military itself, apart from satisfying its narrow institutional motivations? We have the clear example of how Pakistan got entangled in the Afghan imbroglio and pursued security-oriented policies, the ill-effects of which we suffer to date.

Pakistanis are generally ignorant of the importance of the country’s soft power and what can help enhance it. With the civilian leadership being overshadowed by the military due to the former’s incompetence and other factors, its international standing isn’t that high. When institutional interests do not harmonise with national goals, the country cannot reach its full potential. The question is: how can this be corrected, if at all? We have the example of developing countries, including Muslim ones like Turkey, Indonesia and a few others that were subjected to prolonged military rule and have partially succeeded in transitioning to a stage where the civil-military balance has been largely restored. This transformation was made possible only when the performance of the civilian government and that of political parties improved to the satisfaction of the people. Once the people gain confidence that there is a distinct improvement in performance, then their support and confidence in democracy increases. It is rather unfortunate that Turkey, lately, is facing grave internal and external challenges that have placed a great strain on its democratic credentials.

Experience shows that when the military leadership develops a clear vision and understanding that it is in the foremost interest of the country to have strong political and state institutions, this realisation can greatly facilitate the democratic process. We’ve had military leaderships in the past that wanted to institutionalise the military’s role. There were several self-serving politicians and opinion-makers, who echoed and even led the discourse that Pakistan needs such a system. We are fortunate that there is a relatively better understanding of the long-term benefits of strengthening democracy despite the generally disappointing performance of our political parties.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 14th, 2015.

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