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Pakistan’s fragile democratic transition

Little to celebrate as new elections approach

  • Silent Thinker, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • January 14, 2013
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The prospect of a civilian government completing a full term for the first time in the country’s history should be a democratic triumph for Pakistanis. But sadly this will not be the case.

Not least for thousands of Hazara Shias braving sub-zero temperatures on a road in Quetta refusing to bury people killed in twin suicide blasts last week.

The same can be said of families of more than 2,500 people in Karachi who died last year in sectarian violence.

Similarly, cries for democracy were drowned out in explosions in Peshawar, capital of the restive Northern province, which suffered its deadliest December last year. An airport and an air force base were attacked, anti-polio vaccination team members were shot dead, a minister died in a suicide attack and 21 kidnapped paramilitary personnel were all killed.

“The failure of government is not the failure of democracy. Know the difference,” a new public information message declared when I switched on the television set this evening.

The statement cries of the desperation which has gripped the establishment these past few months.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party has disappointed the whole nation. Hopes were high when we all casted sympathy votes for the party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated two weeks before the 2008 general election. Church leaders trusted the party would address their concerns regarding justice and peace as well as repeal the infamous blasphemy laws.

Five years on neither minorities nor the majority feel safe on their streets. Each citizen is suffering a debt burden of 80,000 rupees (US$ 821) as the country enters 2013 with 13 trillion rupees of public debt. Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio is endemic. Everybody is wondering whether the general election will actually take place when the current National Assembly dissolves in March.

“It is a hollow democracy. We are surrounded by false revolutionists and opportunists who play popular politics. They offer no resolutions,” Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Awami Workers Party told a seminar on “Political Scenarios and the Upcoming Elections” I recently attended.

“Despite suffering a colossal loss of life and property, our leaders have failed in achieving a national consensus on fighting the Taliban. Instead they have further polarized society into a mob. The template of condemnation is electronically generated after every terror attack and the unending blame game continues,” he said.

Still, members of civil society agree that a peaceful transition through elections is the only way forward. All speakers at the seminar supported continuation of the democratic system and rejected any other option.

For a nation that has never witnessed a democratic transition, the New Year is very important. Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent, 14 prime ministers have failed to complete their terms. The fragile country is now standing at an important juncture in a troubled history distorted successively by the military and the mullahs.

Even today a cleric returned from Canada is spearheading a march toward Islamabad against the federal and provincial governments for “fostering terrorism.” The federal government has been preparing to tackle expected clashes.

The road to a peaceful transition in Pakistan now faces its biggest challenge.

However the time has also come for the ruling elite to declare an election date and hold it in a free and fair manner. An impartial caretaker government should be established on time in consultation with the political forces and according to the requirements of the constitution.   

If I were to suggest any electoral reforms, they should include a ban on participation by religious parties in state politics and shortening the term of a civilian government to four years.

Any attempts to Islamize an already failed state would only propel the country into a headlong fall.

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore

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