The Fog of Democracy

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Meeting less than a fortnight after the completion of the electoral process on Nov 2, the members of the National Assembly (NA), duly sworn in by the outgoing Speaker, Elahi Bakhsh Soomro, will vote to elect the NA Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. These election will provide the outlines of the democratic government that will emerge from the “fog of democracy” prevailing since Oct 11 in the country. While the military government of three years will cease to exist, the new government will consist mainly of those whom the military regime removed on Oct 12, 1999 but who nevertheless during the election campaign publicly supported the rather benevolent three-year militarily rule. The PML (Q)-led Grand National Alliance (GNA) commands enough of a democratic bloc (sans the two other major parties, PPP-P and MMA) to ensure that the man who emerged as the nation’s leader by default as a result of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s mid-autumn madness, General Pervez Musharraf, will continue as President. Before administering the oath of office to the PM-elect, most probably Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the President will be administered oath of office by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan. With the swearing-in of the PM, the much-maligned 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, duly abridged, will stand restored.

Since none of the political parties got a clear mandate, the GNA was always slotted to be part of viz (1) a national consensus government of all the major political parties (2) a coalition government either with PPP-P or the MMA, or most unlikely (3) sit in strong opposition to a PPP-P-MMA coalition. GNA could also easily form a government even if 10-15 members of PPP-P and/or PML (N) deserted their party whip to vote their “conscience”. Late night on Thursday Nov 14, the cracks in PPP-P appeared publicly. The sticking point for all the major political parties is the Legal Framework Order (LFO) giving cover to the 29 constitutional amendments (on 21 of which the political parties are reconciled) made by the President on the recommendations of the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB). To ensure literally a witch’s brew of confusion, master-politician Ms Benazir Bhutto threw the PM-ambitions of JUI (F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman as a spanner into the political works. In direct support, she also resuscitated (literally) from the dead, wizened old perennial leader of the opposition (for opposition’s sake) ARD chief Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. But others can play the same political game and the lady outsmarted herself and in the process got politically out-manipulated! With players of her calibre in the democratic market and with the stakes so high, the dialogue to come to a solution was wrongly diagnosed as a political deadlock of Gordian-knot proportions. That concerted discussions took place in earnest before the enactment of the NA Session prevented democracy from being stillborn at re-birth, that would have been a disaster. In many democracies of the world, coalition governments consisting of many parties big and small are the fashion rather than a rarity, the latest ones being in France and Germany, major stakeholders of the European Union (EU).

Before coming to agreement on the formation of any government, the GNA and MMA tried to thrash out the issues in the LFO that separate them, namely (1) the National Security Council and/or its composition (2) the retaining of Article 52(2) (b) or rewording of it thereof (3) the retaining of the COAS post by the President and (4) the continuance of the President or the ratification of his office by majority vote of Parliament. The grey area really is of the President’s continuation in office and delineation of his powers thereof. Given the history of weak Presidents having no powers (remember Farooq Leghari before the repealing of Article 52(2) (b) when he dissolved the NA and sacked Ms Benzir’s government, and than after the repeal by the subsequent PM Mian Nawaz Sharif when Leghari was forced by circumstances to resign as President). The President needs to have adequate powers so that he is not a Tarar-like rubber stamp and the so-called democratic mandate is not transferred into an elected dictatorship. By the mode and conduct of his governance over the past three years, Pervez Musharraf has shown that he is adequately qualified to be an effective Head of State provided he has the requisite powers, he is simply not cut out to be a figurehead.

Third World Countries with low literacy and high democratic aspirations like Pakistan need a National Security Council (NSC) that can debate crisis of various mode and proportion at a responsible forum before the crisis crosses the democratic “fail-safe line” into military autocracy. It would be disaster not to have the NSC safety-valve, the next martial law may not be as benevolent to politicians as Pervez Musharraf has been. And believe me, those who think bloddy martial laws are not possible in Pakistan better rid themselves of this gross misconception, even if the next martial law is not bloody it will hardly be as benign as the present rule. Removing the checks and balances will be like playing Pakistani roulette, five rounds in the chamber compared to one in Russian roulette. That a country has to resort to military rule is certainly not a happy occasion, but then it is always better to have a military rule than to have no country at all. The NSC is somewhat of a shock absorber. One can maybe change the composition of the NSC so that it is more “civilianized” by maybe deleting two of the Service Chiefs, the Chief of Air Staff and the Chief of Naval Staff. As for Article 52(2b), it should never have been revoked, simply re-worded pragmatically. Instead of the draconian extreme of dissolving the Assemblies by punishing the PM and his Cabinet for whatever indiscretions, only the PM and his Cabinet should be dismissed and the matter referred automatically to the SC for adjudication within a specific time period. The punishment should fit the crime, collective punishment for all is no solution. After all why should the opposition suffer for the government’s excesses?

The President would certainly not retain the post of COAS in normal circumstances but he will be forced to resort to this anomaly in the absence of the NSC and a suitably worded Article 52 (2b). Our esteemed last Supreme Commander Rafiq Ahmed Tarar was really a toothless President as he himself has been publicly stating overtime, having lately recovered the voice he lost over 18 months or so ago. The COAS post is really a bargaining chip and as soon as the issues of NSC and Article 52 (2b) are settled, this matter should become infructuous. As the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the President of the country should always be the pre-eminent personality who oversees the governance provided by any democratic regime. Why do we need constitutional monarchs? The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) should also directly report to the President, accountability has been one of the major success stories of the Musharraf regime. The acid test of the new democratic regime will be in its attitude towards NAB, whether it enhances its powers and reach (eg to include the superior judiciary and the Armed Forces) or whether it curbs its effectiveness and thus consigns NAB’s successes to the dustbin of history. If such a thing should happen without the cover of NSC and Article 52 (2b), politicians may well live to regret the omission.

PML (Q) will lead the GNA into a coalition government with or without the MMA. The MMA stance on the LFO issues are too demanding for the supporters of the military regime to accept as it would virtually Tarar-ize Gen Musharraf, and that is one thing he will (and should) certainly not let happen. With the help of “rebel” votes from the PPP-P and PML (N), the GNA can not only easily form the Government, they will have a useful enough majority in the Centre. The MMA has gambled by demanding too much and if they strike out, they will have lost out big. Not only will they lose the NA Speaker’s slot, they will be confined only to government formation in NWFP, certainly not in Balochistan. Unfortunately because they tried to be more clever than others, the PPP-P is the biggest loser of Elections 2002. They stand to lose out in Sindh where they should make a government, having the largest number of seats, but most probably will not. As opposed to the “fog of war”, who says that we will not have surprises emerging from the dissipating “fog of democracy”?

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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