Can Pakistan Sustain Its Democracy?

Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani chairs the Federal Cabinet meeting held at PM Secretariat in Islamabad on Jan. 4. (Photo: Asianet-Pakistan/

Pakistan is clearly struggling to make democracy a sustainable form of government. In the 64 years of its existence, it has only succeeded only half the time—and that too as a democracy that keeps looking over its shoulder. Today, the fight for democracy has gained strength because of the emergence of two new pillars of the state: the judiciary and the media. While the judiciary has asserted its independence with unprecedented activism (sometimes swinging to other extremes, like trying to control the price of sugar), the media has made government's (mis)management of the media almost impossible to implement.

A case in point is the open vendetta between the Jang group and the presidency. President Asif Ali Zardari and Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, part-owner and group editor-in-chief of the Jang Group, were contemporaries as young men in Karachi in the 60s and 70s. TV channels and newspapers of the Jang Group have taken on the government frontally, seizing every opportunity it can to expose and embarrass it. In return, the government repays in kind, opening up old tax cases and using other such weapons against Jang at its disposal. In this confrontation, the public has benefitted from learning all about the sleaze in government. While useful, this excessive and repetitive government-bashing often leads to naked sensationalism and a demoralization of the public.

The current standoff, however, is between the government and the judiciary. While the judiciary has a foot on the government's tail in a number of cases, the two matters that are destabilizing the government are the National Reconciliation Order (NRO) case and the so-called memogate case.

The NRO was a document negotiated between Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto in 2007, whereby all corruption and criminal cases against the latter, her husband Asif Ali Zardari and her party stalwarts were supposed to abate. In return, she would allow Musharraf to stay on as president. The implementation, however, was marred by bad intentions on both sides before the ink of the agreement could dry, resulting in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the subsequent ouster of Musharraf by now-President Zardari under the threat of impeachment. 

The NRO's main benefit—of the state revoking all corruption cases against Zardari and PPP stalwarts—was considered a legitimate bonanza of the ordinance. But it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2009. Among the most critical cases against the Zardaris was a case in Switzerland, where the government of Pakistan prosecuted Benazir and Zardari for kickbacks from Swiss inspection and certification services companies SGS and Contecna.

As the prosecution in the Swiss Court was about to be completed, the then-attorney general of Pakistan reportedly, without authorization, requested in a letter to a Swiss Court that it withdraw the government's case. The Supreme Court took serious note of the letter, and at once asked the government to resume prosecution with the Swiss Court. For two years, the ruling government dithered, and the Supreme Court kept quiet on the pretext that the government filed a review—even though the Supreme Court had not yet issued a stay order against its decision of declaring NRO illegal. After the review petition of the government was declined a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court has finally become proactive.

The latest act of the apex court was to summon Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani personally on a show cause for contempt of court (for not writing a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the corruption case against Zardari). Gilani presented himself before the Supreme Court on Jan. 19 and pleaded that his government did not comply. Why? Because they are under the impression that the president is immune to prosecution, both inside and outside the country. To the disappointment of many, the apex court has given Gilani's lawyer an opportunity to convince the court of the claimed immunity in the case.

The next hearing, scheduled for Feb. 1, will determine the fate of the prime minister. As for the government, it seems safe for now. It still has a majority in parliament, along with its three main coalition partners, ANP, PML(Q) and MQM. The first two are likely to stay with the government, with some doubts about MQM, known for its "pragmatic" politics.

The average tenure of a democratic government (other than under a general) in Pakistan in the first 11 years (before the first martial laws) was under one year. During the 80s and 90s (when the two main parties, PML(N) and PPP, took two turns each) the average life was two years. Given that, expecting a democratic government to survive five years under the current dispensation is an unrealistic expectation.

The democratic maturity and level of patience of the Pakistani public is about three years. Evidence is the current government: Just as it completed three years of being in power, it began to shake. It has now been 10 months under this condition and continues to be under enormous pressure.

Under the circumstances, what role does the army play? Is a coup imminent? In view of the firm resolve of the Supreme Court to conform to the letter and word of the Pakistani Constitution—a determination aggressively backed by the media—an army intervention is unlikely. The only option available for change is for the opposition to force the government to call an early election, which at the earliest could be after six months.

So while the prime minister can rightly claim to be one of the longest serving in Pakistan's history, the instability of the government and its poor governance record make the common man wonder about the wisdom of democracy.

Tasneem Noorani is former secretary for the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Commerce of the Government of Pakistan. This article was originally published by Gateway House: