Pakistani reform: the task ahead

Raza Rumi

Pakistan has crossed a major milestone last week by achieving a historic consensus on the 18th Amendment with 105 clauses, additions and deletions to the Constitution. The distortions inserted by the military rule have been done away with. Political elites this time, however, have gone a step further and improved the state of provincial autonomy. Perhaps this is where a civilian negotiation and democratic politics of compromise has been most effective. Who would have thought a few years ago that this was achievable? There were many skeptics who thought that the amendments might not be approved. However, the ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent’ politicians have proved everyone wrong.

Leaving aside the discourse of corruption, the NRO, and a vociferous media campaign against the President, the achievements in the last one-year by all political parties have been tremendous. The Awami National Party, after its initial truce with the militants, has stayed the course and resisted Talibanisation by giving full support to the army operations against the militants. The PPP and PML-N, despite their rhetoric and political point-scoring, have worked together on the national finance commission award (NFC) and now on the implementation of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) that has become the basis for the amendments to become a reality.

The nay-sayers of democracy and the political process forget one fundamental fact: a federal structure cannot work without a robust political process. A start has been made through the recent successes after a decade of ‘controlled democracy’. However, despite the march towards the democratic ideal, there are clear and present dangers that democracy is as fragile as ever.
The reasons are not difficult to state: the political class that is adept at wrangling and the unelected institutions of the state whose quest for power is an ever-present reality. The second factor is the dwindling state of the economy that shows little or faint signs of recovery. This would spell disaster for any civilian government regardless of which party is enjoying power at the centre. Finally, the transition required at the federal and provincial levels of governance will also be a challenge bringing out the issues of state capacity into the limelight.

Some credit should go to the otherwise-discredited president. Mr Zardari has relinquished powers to appoint or sack prime ministers, service chiefs and judges. He has agreed to the abolition of limits restricting prime ministers to two terms, clearing the way for Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, to become prime minister yet again. And he has given the chief justice a veto over the appointment of fellow judges.

Political elites

There is no denying that history has been made. It is rare to find a politician who gives up powers of his own accord. The incumbent President who had no credibility to begin with, thanks to years of witch-hunts, media trials, and transgressions has proved all his critics wrong. His role and powers have been reduced to that of a figurehead.

But the relentless campaign against him continues unabated. This does not augur well for the future of democratic process. It is a truism that no political party wants a general election. The public position of the parties is clear on that front. Yet, the mounting campaign against the President who happens to be the leader of the largest political party implies that the consequences of his exit from the office stripped of all powers will lead to further instability. An in-house change that comes out of exigencies of power politics will also set a wrong precedent that the two main parties have worked to avoid at all costs.

Unelected institutions

The key power wielders in Pakistan are now the two institutions of the state, the army and the judiciary. The latter has acquired power on the basis of a populist movement and its decisions thus far have taken cognizance of public mood. Whether it was to set the price of sugar to the reopening of the Swiss cases against the President, there seems to a clear tilt towards the popular as opposed to the technically legal.

The army has also recovered from the setbacks caused by the Musharraf era. First, it has shown great resolve against the militants in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the FATA and has earned public approval. In addition, the belligerence of Indian leadership has also made the army central to debate on Pakistan’s survival. Most importantly, the West, especially the USA, has also formally recognised the army as the counterpart negotiator. The latter views Pakistan army as central to its Afghanistan strategy even at the expense of the full authority of the civilian government.

Several analysts, however, maintain that the swing of the power pendulum towards the army and the judiciary is a danger to the future of civilian governance, which was achieved after prolonged struggles on the Pakistani streets.

A particular matter of concern is the issue of presidential immunity, which has been brought into public light through the judgments of the Supreme Court. Whereas Article 248 of the Constitution is quite unambiguous on this issue, there are strong indications that the court is in a mood to reinterpret the article and submit the judicial process to a populist clamouring for accountability and anti-corruption.

Policy initiatives over the last year have shifted from the federal cabinet and the parliament to the GHQ and the courts. Whether it is policy regarding India, war against terrorism, prices of essential commodities, promotions within the civil service or appointments of judges, the elected government has a very limited role to play and has had no choice but to submit to the decisions of the two powerful institutions of the state.

State capacity

The 18th Amendment calls for a major shifting of powers and functions from the centre to the provincial governments. Questions have already been raised on the limited capacity of the provincial governments to adjust to newer realities and whether they are prepared to assume enhanced responsibilities — from regulatory mechanisms to policy-making, curriculum-development or even legislation. What will happen to the mammoth federal bureaucracy and how would it manoeuvre to preserve its vested interest is a question to be reckoned with. In addition, the provincial governments have already rolled back the comprehensive local government reform initiated by General Musharraf, leaving a huge governance vacuum at the local level. Rights, entitlements and services are mediated and negotiated at the lowest level of governance. The citizenry is soon going to find it pushed to a corner when the local state is in a process of transition, while the provincial government is too busy acquiring and consolidating newfound powers. In the short-term, there is going to be administrative chaos, if not anarchy at all four provincial capitals. If we add the usual power struggles between the centre and the provinces, this process is going to be messy and, dare one say, conflictual.

Missing amendments

As noted above, the political consensus achieved thus far is phenomenal by all accounts. However, the reforms committee and the parliament have ignored two issues. First, the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been left untouched. What were the reasons for not addressing this war zone and global hotspot by the maverick political elites of Pakistan? If they were scared of the national security apparatus, they could have engaged with the GHQ, as they generally do at the drop of a hat. Second, the Islamic provisions unlawfully inserted by General Ziaul Haq are very much there, keeping Zia’s ghost alive and kicking, even though his name has been deleted from the basic document. For instance, the condition of the Prime Minister being a Muslim is completely unjustifiable. Given that Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, why should such a provision be retained in the basic governance document? This is just a simple case of pandering to the mullah lobby and the process since 1948 remains unchanged.

The ailing economy

The larger issue remains: how will the improved constitutional structure lead to economic progress, more jobs and opportunities for the millions living below or a little above the poverty line? The growth rate is struggling to increase a little over the population increase per annum. The 25 percent inflation rate is the highest ever witnessed by Pakistanis: and all estimates and forecasts suggest that the prices of food are going to further increase. The ongoing energy crisis has depleted what little industrial capacity there was, and the political squabbling over the type of power plants means that any solution to this crisis would be controversial and used for political gains. This is perhaps an area where the political elites need to reconvene and think beyond their immediate power-interests. Pakistan is in a desperate need for structural reform. Only 2 percent of the population pays taxes and there is little or no collection under the head of agricultural income tax. Similarly, the economic policy-making process is completely in the hand of the international financial institutions and generalist bureaucrats at the top. Unless the major political parties agree on an economic reform agenda and fully implement it, we will remain a debt-trapped, cash-starved and failing economy. The current signs are not promising: there is deep suspicion about the economic management at the centre and there is a lack of bipartisan consensus. In this situation, the democratic experiment reignited in 2008 faces a major challenge. Perhaps this is the biggest threat to the survival of democracy in the country. The fundamental cause of the lack of economic performance is political instability that may not go away so easily. Therefore, another reforms commission is required to deliberate and come up with a package that includes protection of citizen rights and confronting the economic oligarchies by strengthening the competition commission of Pakistan.

In conclusion, we have come a long way from the dark years of military dictatorship but we are still not poised to enjoy political stability, democratic governance and economic progress. Geo-strategic compulsions, over-powerful institutions of the state and dismal economic conditions may just dilute the effect of the recent constitutional amendment passed by the Parliament. Finally, state capacity to deliver on all these fronts is weak and under severe challenges, and it is time the Raza Rabbani committee is followed by several commissions to implement the reform in the political and economic domains. Otherwise, we will continue to be trapped in the cursed cycle of history.

Published in The NEWS, Pakistan



Filed under Constitution, Democracy, Liberal Democratic Pakistan, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, Politics, public policy, state

15 responses to “Pakistani reform: the task ahead

  1. Nusrat Pasha


    #1: Replace the Objectives Resolution, which serves as the Preamble of the Constituion, with the text of Quaid-e- Azam’s historical 11th August 1947 presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.

    #2: Remove the undeserved prefix of “Islamic” before Republic of Pakistan. The name “Republic of Pakistan” is perfect.

    #3: Repeal Article 2 of the Constitution, which states that “Islam shall be the State Religion”, for the simple reason that it tilts the balance of justice in favour of the already privileged and secure majority. Thus, by making a robust departure from the fundamental Islamic principle of “Musawaat” or equality, the state, in any case violates the spirit of Islam.

    #4: Remove “all” religious content from the Constitution, whether included or endorsed by Acts of Parliament. Quaid-e-Azam’s following words should serve as the beacon:
    a) “….Religion should not be allowed to come into Politics …. Religion is merely a matter between man and God”. [Jinnah, Address to the Central Legislative Assembly, 7 February 1935]
    b) “….You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State.” [Jinnah, Presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Karachi, 11 August 1947]

  2. Ali Abbas

    @Nusrat, amen to that.

  3. Ammar

    Pertinent Points Raza! Pakistan faces dire crisis as the ailing economy and the security situations affect the national economy. The economy is directly related with the security situation as until there is ensuring peace in the country the foreign investors won’t be comfortable to invest in Pakistan. The sooner we eradicate extremism the more investment will flow into Pakistan

  4. Bin Ismail

    “…..the condition of the Prime Minister being a Muslim is completely unjustifiable…..”

    Well said Raza Rumi. A public office, whether that of the President or the Prime Minister require the following attributes in the candidate:

    1. Integrity
    2. Competence
    3. Commitment

    The religious beliefs or affiliations of the candidate, very obviously, have no bearing on the ability of the individual to deliver the goods.

  5. PMA

    Very well said Raza.

    And I second the sentiments of Nusrat Pasha, Ali Abbas, Ammar and Bin Ismail.

  6. Tilsim

    @ Nusrat Pasha

    I second your vision too although sadly it seems that we are far from there. Wallowing in narrow religious dogma seems to be the current idle of the country and its leaders. May be the terrorism (another two bombs in Peshawar today) will lead people to reassess whether the current way we involve Islam in everything is the way forward towards a better Pakistan.

  7. fair mind2

    Fruits of tree planted by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

    An intolerant nation
    Dawn Editorial
    Monday, April 19, 2010
    We are reaping the harvest of the seeds of hatred sown in the seventies and eighties. Pakistan is becoming an increasingly intolerant nation where religious and sectarian minorities live in fear and are awarded little or no protection by the state. Difference is unacceptable to the obscurantists who want everyone to toe their line. And if that takes intimidation, torture or even murder, then so be it, for no option is unavailable to the self-righteous who believe that they alone have seen the light.

    This mindset is not limited to the Taliban who kill in the name of religion. There is no shortage in Pakistan of sectarian and other militant outfits that feel justified in murdering Shias, Christians and Ahmadis — or indeed anyone who doesn’t share their views. Most of these organisations have their genesis in the Zia era, a dark chapter in the country’s history which is responsible for rending our social fabric and fanning the flames of intolerance.

    Take the case of Friday’s bloody events in Quetta. First the son of a prominent Shia leader was shot dead outside a bank. And when his body was taken to hospital, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the emergency ward. Responsibility for the deadly attack was taken by the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an offshoot of the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan.

    It is even more extreme in its views than the outlawed SSP (now called the Ahl-i-Sunnat Waljamaat) and has a history of killing Shias and destroying their property in various parts of Punjab. The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is active elsewhere in the country as well, as evidenced by Friday’s killings in Quetta. Consider also the plight of Ahmadis living in Faisalabad. As this paper reported on Saturday, the government is looking the other way even as they are robbed, threatened and killed. This terror spree is attributed to the defunct SSP which became emboldened when some Ahmadi students were expelled from a medical college after being falsely accused of blasphemy.

    Instead of taking the accusers to task, the authorities punished the victims. Meanwhile a shadowy cleric has apparently decreed that robbing and killing Ahmadis is permissible.

    The Punjab government needs to act, and act now, to protect Faisalabad’s Ahmadi community and other minorities in the province. But that is perhaps asking too much of an administration whose law minister consorts openly with known extremists. Organisations such as the SSP and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi are proscribed only in name. Their strength remains undiminished and the leader of the Ahl-i-Sunnat Waljamaat is granted audiences with provincial chief ministers and at least one governor. This double-game must end if extremism is to be curbed.

  8. Nusrat Pasha

    @fair mind2

    Indeed, Bhutto and Zia, both made their own respective contributions to the process of religious radicalization of politics and society in Pakistan. But with reference to Pakistan, I think the first major departure from Quaid-e Azam’s secular vision, was the Objectives Resolution. This opened the first secret backdoor for the entry of Mullaism. As time passed, this secret backdoor – synonymous with “chore darwaza” – became less of a secret and more of an invitation. The religious extremists themselves as well as those who wanted to use religion, both, soon got familiar with the ins and outs of this door. This was followed by similar new doors, until, eventually we found ourselves in the midst of this present crisis.

  9. silk router

    An absolutist-finalist religion is always a big disaster, and as state ideology it spells even greater disaster (given the weaknesses inherent in human beings).

    Giving such a religion and ideology in the hands of human beings is like giving a burning torch in the hands of a monkey.

    An absolutist-finalist religion and ideology is of more use to those who have a low-level of intelligence and culture and wish to set up a ruthless totalitarian state that suppresses the more intelligent and the more cultured human beings, whom the former envy and hate.

    If A envies B then A is going to resort to some ideology that helps him suppress/insult/devalue/hurt person B. Very often these persons of type A belong to the so-called elite class or ruling class or “scholar” class. Here-in the concept “god” can play a very negative and destructive role. Person A only has to declare that he is doing this suppression etc. for god’s glory.

  10. Bin Ismail

    Pakistan’s drift from the original secular state founded by Quaid-e Azam to a pro-theocracy, took place in phases. When religion is allowed to come into politics, you affect law-making, directly as well as indirectly, by setting precedents which tend to be followed later on. Let us chronologically examine how and when these precedents were set:

    #1: Objectives Resolution – 1948: The primary precedent was set for bringing religion into politics.

    #2: Punjab Government sponsors anti-Ahmadi riots – 1953: By sponsoring Jamaat Islami, Majlis Ahrar and Jamiat Ulama-e Islam, for religious rioting, the government set a precedent for sponsoring violence and crime, in the name of religion. Later on, this precedent was followed religiously by successive regimes.

    #3: “Islamic Republic” – 1956: A constitutional measure promising a defining and potentially decisive role for the clergy, in the running of the country. A precedent was set for naming whatever the government liked “Islamic”, evidently for political purposes.

    #4: Article 2 of the 1973 Constitution – 1973: “Islam shall be the State Religion of Pakistan”. This opened the door for Islam to be used and misused to the convenience of rulers.

    #5: The 2nd amendment to the 1973 Constitution, declaring Ahmadis “not Muslims for the purposes of Constitution and Law” – 1974: A precedent was set for getting the Parliament to bow before the maulvis. The bow, in due course turned into a perennial prostration.

    #6: The Anti-Ahmadiyya Ordinance issued by Zia – 1982: An ultimately unique precedent was set for depriving any community of all its fundamental religious rights, guaranteed in Article 20 of the Constitution.

    By allowing religion into politics, religion is reduced to a mere toy, with which politicians play to satisfy their insatiable political appetite.

  11. Bin Ismail

    @ silk router

    “….An absolutist-finalist religion is always a big disaster….”

    With reference to your words quoted above, and without being specific to a certain religion, I would like to say that Religion, State Religion and Clergy are three distinct entities. You seem to be judging religion by the attitudes of an obtrusive clergy. May I humbly suggest, that clergy does not represent religion, neither does state religion or politicized religion stand equivalent to religion.

    On a more specific note, with reference to Islam, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the Holy Quran aims at inculcating an attitude of tolerance, accommodation and acceptance with complete and absolute religious freedom for all. The following references deserve attention:

    1: ” There is NO coercion in matters of religion. ” (2:256 )

    2: ” Whoever chooses to believe LET him believe and whoever chooses to disbelieve LET him disbelieve ” (18:29)

    3: ” Your religion is for you and my religion is for me ” (109:6)

    In my opinion, Muslims become violent only when they turn away from the true teachings of Islam. However, inspite of all its spiritual beauty, I still, would be inclined to recommend that Islam should be kept distinct from statecraft, even in a Muslim-majority country. That would be the best service to both Islam and the state.

  12. Bin Ismail

    @Nusrat Pasha

    I’ve borrowed your words from a comment of yours appearing on another thread. Thank you.


  13. Nusrat Pasha

    @ Bin Ismail

    Most welcome.

  14. Khullat

    This time around, lets have a new Constituent Assembly – that can be entrusted the unfinished job that was laid out by Quaid-e-Azam on August 11, 1947.

  15. Khullat

    @ Bin Ismail

    Your words: “…When religion is allowed to come into politics, you affect law-making, directly as well as indirectly, by setting precedents which tend to be followed later on…”

    True. Law-making is all about setting precedents. Good laws leave us with good precedents and bad laws with bad precedents.