Imran Khan’s threat to Pakistan’s democracy


The month-long dharnas (sit-in) in the nerve centre of Pakistan’s federal capital can easily be described as the ‘Disneyland of Pakistani dystopia,’ notes a prominent observer.

Shocking is the fact that a cleric with good oratory skills can create an illusion of revolution with his half-baked ideas, selective reading of the often mutilated Constitution and his captive religious supporters. And an ex-cricketer with his nostalgic charm primarily in non-political fields can market himself as a sole Massihaa (salvager) and a revolutionary reformer, writes Zafarullah Khan, an Islamabad-based civic educator/researcher:

This can happen only in 21st century Pakistan. …The life of pure parliamentary experience including caretakers has been slightly less than 35 percent with dozens of unnecessary disruptions. Who do we blame and ask for the accountability of these lost years of national life? Juxtaposed with these odds is the historic resilience of Pakistanis for the federal parliamentary system that cares for the concerns of the periphery otherwise expediently ignored by the centralised state and its decaying institutions. It is the same with circumvented constitutionalism that asserted ‘due process’ as one of the fundamental rights only in 2010 through the 18th Amendment.

The stand-off also risks bringing the military back into politics, notes the FT:

The army has been able to present itself as a neutral “third force”, a mirage in a country that has been under military rule for almost half of its independent years. [Imran] Khan has vehemently denied suggestions that he is being manipulated by the military, which is angry with Mr Sharif for pursuing the prosecution of Pervez Musharraf, a former military ruler, and for trying to seize control of foreign policy. Yet Mr Khan’s actions are playing into the hands of those who would bring the whole shaky democratic edifice toppling down.

Can the military’s ingrained strategic worldview change? Analyst Christine Fair is not hopeful, notes the Jinnah Institute’s Raza Rumi:

She paints a dire picture and argues the institution is “fundamentally unsatisfied with the status quo, desiring additional territory even when it is not desired for security.” In a striking insight, she also challenges the conventional wisdom that democratization will improve things. Fair says the Army’s strategic culture permeates Pakistan’s “civil society, political culture and bureaucracies.”

In his book, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (published in April 2014), Aqil Shah, a political scientist at Dartmouth [and former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy], presciently said, “…it could be reasonably speculated that Pakistan might be heading toward a new civil-military arrangement in which civilian supremacy becomes a euphemism for the military’s formal and active participation in matters of war and peace. In other words, this would constitute a situation in which the military does not seize direct power but formally insinuates its non-democratic privileges into the functioning of a democracy.” (The Army and Democracy, Conclusion, page 286).

The nursery of politics – students unions – has been forbidden fruit since 1984. Similar is the case of vibrant labour unions, notes Khan, a member of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee:

On the contrary traditionalist religio-political thoughts enjoy the liberty of refuge behind taqlid (following). The story of nation-building agencies like public service broadcast and educational curriculum are equally pathetic. Deepening understanding about democracy and its vital ingredients is also missing from the radar of the vibrant private media and educational sphere.

The theme of the International Day of Democracy-2014 is: engaging the youth for democratic ideals and dreams. In sociological terms Pakistan is experiencing a youth bulge. This is an appropriate time to seize the opportunity and make the largest segment of the society a vanguard of democracy and harbinger of democratic culture, constitutionalism and rule of law.

The overwhelming majority of our youth require a compulsory vaccine of democratic civic education to understand the dynamics and institutional architecture of politics and the design of polity to make democracy more meaningful and transform the democratic culture. Most of our struggles in the past had been for democratic space and survival. It is now time to add some real substance to the nation’s democratic experience. Can we meet this enormous challenge?


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