Thursday, January 19, 2012

Democracy's next chapter

The familiar refrain of a democracy under threat is once again making the rounds in Pakistan.

The source of these worries is the image of the ruling government having to defend itself in the face of pressure from the military and the judiciary.

Last month, Prime Minster Gilani cryptically referred to the military establishment as a "state within a state" that must bow down to the government. More recently, Gilani reminded the judiciary of his public mandate to rule and the supremacy of the parliament above all else when he addressed the National Assembly during the passing of a pro-democracy resolution.

The culmination of the face-off between these state institutions occurred when Gilani appeared in the Supreme Court to defend himself against charges of contempt for not initiating cases against President Zardari. If Gilani is found guilty, it may potentially force early elections. To the casual observer, this situation seems ripe for democratic instability.

However, the Prime Minister's Supreme Court appearance is actually a good thing for Pakistani democracy in the long-run.

Democracy has been described as government of the people, by the people, for the people. In its present form, Pakistani democracy is certainly of the people, and by the people. That is why Gilani can repeatedly refer to his public mandate to rule and continually trumpets the supremacy of a parliament that is full of his coalition allies. The elections that brought the PPP and its allies to power were not as free and fair as we would have liked. But they were elections, nonetheless. In that sense, the present government is a legitimate expression of popular will.

By only focusing on his party's popular support, however, and forgetting his responsibilities as Government CEO, Gilani conveniently forgets how democracy cannot simply be by the people and of the people but must also be for the people.

It is that sense of accountability for the people that Gilani's Supreme Court appearance should be taken to represent.

It is likely that not much will come out of all of this due to the presidential immunity granted to Zardari via Pakistan's Constitution, and the Vienna Convention. What is more significant is the symbolism behind the Supreme Court attempting to hold the government accountable for not acting upon the judiciary's recommendations.

A frequent complaint against such open questioning of the government is the need for stability. This argument says that Pakistani democracy is inherently fragile and undue stress must not be placed upon it. Such an argument is particularly powerful in a country that has experienced sustained periods of military rule and where the military is perceived to hold sway over the civilian government even during times of democratic rule.

The argument, however, does not hold because it underestimates the strength of Pakistan's democratic structures, which have endured even during military rule.

Consider the Musharraf era. From the outset, Musharraf was forced to govern through parliamentary allies. He sought to legitimize his rule by seeking a show of support from the parliament. He tried to lengthen his rule by granting amnesty to popularly elected politicians. When he was forced out, it was due to a populist movement.

Democracy in Pakistan has progressed too far for it to be brought down so easily. What is needed now is for democracy to move beyond a simple expression of popular will and towards a system where the ruling government - no matter what party it happens to be from - is held accountable, whether it is the Supreme Court that does the accounting or the voters at the next election.

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