Written by Yunas Samad.

Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal by the Supreme Court raises questions about the future of democracy in Pakistan. No Prime Minster has so far managed to complete a full term of office, and his predecessor Yousaf Gilani was also forced to resign by the Supreme Court.  Sharif fell foul of the court because of revelations from the Panama Papers, but rather than being convicted for corruption and hoarding his ill gotten gains abroad, he was caught on a technicality of not declaring his UAE work permit in his asset declaration to the Electoral Commission. His dismissal is a continuing reminder about the fragility of the democratisation process, which is in a struggle with powerful authoritarian tendencies in the country.  It also raises questions about what kind of democratic space is developing and what type of hybrid regime is emerging.

The army is effectively operating martial law in parts of Pakistan. Sharif was able to push back against the army with the CPEC project, which is the largest investment programme in Pakistan’s history, but this comes from a low base.

Hybrid regimes like Pakistan occupy a grey area, where they have attributes of democracy but at the same time have authoritarian compulsions that prevent them from being considered to be mature democracies. They are not necessarily in transition, and after periods of time develop in to full blown democracies. In order to understand the democratisation process in Pakistan, this blog will ruminate on three things: transfer of power and elections, tutelage, and neo-patrimonialism.

When Nawaz Sharif took over in 2013, expectations in Pakistan rose. The governments’ predecessor, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition, was the first elected government that completed a full term of office in Pakistan’s history; and the transition of power was to another elected government. The election brought about a real turnover of power, which is an important criterion for the development of democracy.  This was unlike the 1990s when there were numerous elections, but ultimate power resided in the hands of the Chief of Army Staff with the President and Prime Minster acting as junior partners. This created an inherently unstable political structure.

The 2008 elections were originally framed with this approach in mind, with General Musharraf remaining the puppet master and Benazir Bhutto providing him with electoral legitimacy. However, this plan backfired when he clashed with the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and Musharraf had to step down as Chief of Army Staff. In these changed circumstances, the 2008 elections became competitive but under conditions hardly considered to be free or fair. The process produced an unexpected victory for the PPP, led now by Asif Ali Zardari. The fact that the Zardari administration was able to complete a full term, accept electoral defeat (a first in Pakistan history), and was prepared to collaborate as an opposition party certainly says a lot about the maturing of the democratic process.

These events raise an interesting question: do unelected officials have the authority to override elected officials, which in Pakistan is primarily military interference?  The main mechanism for this was Article 58(2) b of the Seventeenth Amendment that empowered the President to dissolve the government and parliament. The PPP-led coalition promulgated the Eighteenth Amendment in 2010, which was a positive step forward; making parliament supreme and removing the President’s enormous powers. In a single stroke, the amendment undermined the constitutional mechanism for tutelage; whereby the unelected officials, the army, were able to influence elected officials. However this did not mean that the army rolled over and accepted civilian control. Both the Zardari and Nawaz administrations failed in asserting civilian control over what the army considered to be the security agenda: relations with India, Kashmir, Afghanistan and the United States, as well as relations with China and strategic weaponry. Under the PPP coalition they negotiated the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which was the first ever US aid package to a civilian regime. Yet, even this backfired, as the army accused the government of selling Pakistan’s sovereignty because of the conditions imposed on the military.

Under Sharif, the army extended its influence over government. The Dharna, led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri, was given a nod and wink by the boys in khaki to push back civilian control. This was followed by the National Action Plan, which was a major counter offensive against the civilian administration. The National Action Plan was a response to the Peshawar School massacre, and led to military operations in large areas of Pakistan, FATA, Balochistan and Karachi, as well as the return of the death penalty and military courts for the trial of alleged terrorists.

The army is effectively operating martial law in parts of Pakistan. Sharif was able to push back against the army with the CPEC project, which is the largest investment programme in Pakistan’s history, but this comes from a low base. The critical issue here for any civilian administration is that it is unable to assert control over the military, and as it does not control key institutions such as the Ministry of Defence there is little parliamentary oversight. Overall, the democratic space has contracted, returning Pakistan to being an illiberal tutelary hybrid regime.

Aiding this military influence is a state of neo-patrimonialism in Pakistan. This is a practice where political patrons use state resources to secure loyalty based on patron-client relations, kin groupings and other networks. Most major political parties in Pakistan operate patronage systems as a mechanism for winning elections and maintaining power. For the rule of law to be extended and reduce neo-patrimonial influences, there must be institutional autonomy. In particular, an independent criminal justice system, which is something both the army and political parties have resisted. The only institution that has acted independently in the present democratisation phase is the Supreme Court. In the past it had been too keen to validate Martial Law. Yet, Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal may well be a decision that will not pass the test of time.

There are a number of concerns that make the decision controversial. The first is the role given to the intelligence agencies in the Joint Investigation Team that probed Sharif’s financial affairs, and the fact the report it produced was an investigation and not a trial. Yet, on the basis of its findings the Supreme Court disqualified the Prime Minster indefinitely. The problem with the Supreme Court taking cases directly is that it goes against principles of justice, where there is a right of appeal. The Supreme Court decision cannot be appealed. Secondly, the activity of the Supreme Court has received a mixed blessing. It has focused on politicians, and allowed military figures such as Musharraf to escape aboard. Clearly there must be rule of law in Pakistan, but it must be based on natural justice and seen to be impartial.

The sentiment is that the boys in khaki nudged the judiciary to remove Sharif. It certainly improves Imran Khan’s chances of becoming the next Prime Minster, and places the political momentum with the PTI. However any hopes that Nawaz will go quietly away have been quickly dashed. Nawaz has come back fighting with his whistle stop tour of his support base in Punjab, culminating in a huge rally in Lahore where he berated the Supreme Court verdict and declared there was no evidence for convicting him of corruption. Any thoughts that the Muslim League would collapse are dissipating as he rallies his support base and keeps a tight control over the party. Though, the danger of a Muslim League leadership split remains a possibility, as Nawaz wants his daughter Maryam to inherit the leadership, and she was the main obstacle for his brother Shahbaz Sharif from becoming Prime Minster.

In essence, Pakistan is stuck in a grey zone.  There was evidence of it moving towards becoming an illiberal hybrid regime during the Zaradri administration, but the military went on the offensive and the democratic space contracted to being an illiberal tutelary hybrid regime. There is now a concern that Nawaz’s fighting talk may lead to a clash between institutions and imperil the democratic process. It is critical for the democratisation process that there are elections, and a transfer of power to another elected government. But Nawaz’s dismissal makes this far from a sure thing.

Yunas Samad is Emeritus Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Bradford and a Visiting Professor at LUMS. He is an expert on the study of South Asia and its diaspora and has published several books on the topic of Pakistani nationalism, ethnicity, Islam and the War on Terror. This blog is based on an article ‘Elections and Democratic Transition in Pakistan: One Step Forward and Two Steps Backwards’ that is to be published in Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Vol 55. Issue 04, November 2017. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.


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