Sunday Jan 01, 2023
As the world gears up to celebrate another trip around the sun, there is this innate human urge to review what we experienced in the year concluded. In Pakistan, this stock-taking should also include a review of how the system of democracy functioned in 2022 and what are the prospects of democratic consolidation in 2023.
There is agreement that the passage of the vote of no-confidence motion against the then-prime minister, Imran Khan, has had a major impact on the functioning of democracy in 2022. Ironically, this has unleashed both positive and negative implications for democracy in Pakistan.
A constitutional and democratic process of a vote of no-confidence was employed by the then-opposition parties to remove Khan from the office of prime minister. In procedural terms, an elected prime minister was removed by the will of his electorate in the National Assembly. Given its troubled history, Pakistan’s democracy would certainly celebrate the small mercies thrown its way when the vote count in the National Assembly sends a PM home and not the marching of boots that has traditionally packed up the entire system.
However, the negative aspect of the reality behind the VONC is that it was only successful because institutional support was withdrawn from Khan’s government; no previous attempts to change any officeholder in parliament were possible for the joint opposition until that support was made available to the motion of their vote of no-confidence against the PM.
Khan’s departure from the PM House has opened the floodgates of political mayhem of new proportions for Pakistan’s democracy. From political opponents to the media to state institutions, his populist communication strategy arsenal has been utilised to attack each perceived opponent at will. In response to his unrelenting assault on all, the joint opposition and their supporters, despite a lot of damning material against him, appear clueless about its effective utilisation.
Coupled with his populist rhetoric, his manoeuvred ouster has resulted in greater public popularity for him. At the end of 2022, the apparent inability of the ruling coalition to arrest the economic chaos also proves that their unique selling point of "experienced over novice" has also failed. There is little clarity on how to effectively govern the republic at the start of 2023 just as at the start of the previous year despite the tumultuous change brought about in 2022.
Another key institution of the state, parliament, has remained just as irrelevant to the process of democratic governance as ever during the year. Apart from its utilisation to steer a change of guard at the centre, its continued inability to resolve the political and governance crises facing the country is evident from the fact that political conflicts are either spilling onto the streets or their management is discussed elsewhere behind closed doors. Despite changes in government, its sessions are generally called to hurriedly pass a required piece of legislation without leaving much room for consultation or discussion. Perhaps its worst period in terms of utter disregard for parliamentary sanctity and its rules was witnessed during the year as the VONC was managed by the outgoing presiding officers.
This ultimately led to the former deputy speaker dismissing the no-confidence motion against Article 5 of the constitution, resulting in an unconstitutional dissolution of the National Assembly by the president on the advice of the PM; this was later set aside by the Supreme Court. The Punjab Assembly went a step ahead and made a spectacle through violence and disorder during the process of election of the chief minister.
Another constitutional pillar, the judiciary, has lost a serious opportunity during the year to formalising a clear and transparent nomination and appointment criteria for judges to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The year saw some unprecedented public displays of disagreements spilling from the proceedings of the Judicial Commission of Pakistan. Despite the fierce debate and a substantial effort by some judges and members of the bar councils to formalise a nomination and assessment process, a consensus-based solution was not possible as the government caved in to vote in favour of "merit-alone" versus "seniority-cum-fitness criteria". The proverbial can has been kicked down the road once again — meaning thereby that the appointment of any judge to the Supreme Court can be controversial in the absence of consensus-based criteria.
Increased political polarisation and the refusal of one party to engage meaningfully with others for political consensus on key issues has also meant that more and more political issues are landing at the door of the higher judiciary for resolution which is a cause for grave concern for our constitutional structure of democratic governance. This is also leading to unwarranted politicisation and partisan acclaim. As part of society celebrated the historic setting aside of the ruling of deputy speaker and reversal of the unconstitutional dissolution of the National Assembly at the beginning of the year, there were cheers from others on the interpretation of Article 63A of the constitution which stated that votes cast by legislators in violation of their party’s stance must not be taken into account while determining the outcome of a motion.
Another persisting concern for democracy is the adjudication of the electoral process. Our constitution confers all powers on electoral matters to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and any interference in the process is unwarranted. A case in point is the LHC verdict declaring invalid the action by the ECP against officials allegedly involved in irregularities in the Daska by-election. Setting aside the ECP’s clear constitutional legal mandate in favour of officials in breach of law to rig the election sends not just the wrong signal to political governments and bureaucracy, it also hurts the prospects of free and fair elections in the country.
In the background of our historically low public trust in the electoral process, state and society’s support is crucial for the ECP to effectively exercise its constitutional responsibilities to conduct elections honestly, justly, and fairly according to Article 218 (3) of the constitution of Pakistan. One of the rare positive developments for democracy during the past years has been the effective assertion of this role by the ECP as witnessed through its enquiry reports into the Daska by-election, its verdict on the prohibited funding case and standing tall in the face of unprecedented and unfair political pressure mounted by the PTI while both in government and outside.
A worsening economy with a renewed threat of terrorism compound the concerns thrown up by our fractured democracy and governance model. Have our political parties re-organised with the required policy and practice capacity to effectively take on the challenges we face in 2023? It is hard to bypass these grim realities as we enter the next year.
The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.
Originally published in The News