Rhetoric and ground realities

23 May

Mohammad Jamil

The system of electoral democracy empowers the voters to take away the powers of elected members if they fall short of popular aspirations.
On April 8, 2016, speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the Constitution Day, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani called for devolution of powers in the truest sense to the federating units and people’s ownership of democratic culture to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. He said: “The constitution of Pakistan calls for the propagation of a democratic culture in the country, and if the political leadership refuses to hand over ownership of this culture to the people, it would cause substantial harm to democracy and democratic values.” Last month, Rabbani said that the Article six of the Constitution had become “virtually redundant,” adding that “laws and constitutional amendments provide no guarantee in this regard either.” Referring to the decision to allow the former president, Pervez Musharraf, to leave the country, he called upon the federal government and the legislature to undo the provision by amending the Constitution.

Rabbani should remember that provisions of articles 8-19 of the 1973 Constitution about the fundamental rights of the people, protection of their lives and responsibility of the government to provide education, health facilities and job opportunities have never been implemented in the truest sense. Since various governments failed to ensure freedoms, protect the lives of the people and provide jobs, should those articles be also deleted? The question is why Musharraf was not charged for violating the Constitution, or why the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government during its tenure, 2008-2013, did not move the court for high treason, or placed him on the Exit Control List (ECL) when the Benazir Bhutto murder case was in the court. Why did the PPP raise hullabaloo over the decision of the apex court that had upheld the decision of the Sindh High Court to remove the name of Pervez Musharraf from the ECL?

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is raising the question as to why during PPP’s tenure the then government had allowed Musharraf to leave the country. In fact, the PPP had made an arrangement that in the event Musharraf resigned from the office of president, he would not be charged for violation of the constitution, and the Benazir Bhutto case would not be pursued. This was an unwritten NRO. Within hours after his name was removed from the ECL, Musharraf left for Dubai. Minister for Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that the government allowed Musharraf to travel abroad for medical treatment after the Supreme Court (SC) lifted a ban on his travel outside Pakistan. In fact, government must be ruing its earlier decision of initiating the treason trial that had apparently disturbed its relations with army.

Last month, the SC had handed down a ruling on a government appeal against the Sindh High Court (SHC) order for the removal of Musharraf’s name from the ECL. A five-member bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Anwar Zaheer Jamali upheld the 2014 SHC ruling. However, the court said that the federation of Pakistan or a special court could pass any legal order for regulating Musharraf’s custody or restricting his movement. The court left it to the government to decide whether to allow Musharraf to travel abroad or not. CJP Jamali commented, “The government did not want to do anything on its own and was taking shelter behind the apex court order of April 8.”

From the CJP’s remarks, one could conclude that the court sent the ball to the government’s court stating that it may pass any order on the issue. During the five years of the PPP government, no petition was moved against Musharraf because the PPP wished to avoid confrontation or conflict with the military establishment. It was during the brief tenure of the interim government that the apex court had admitted petitions for hearing; this was when Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Even before the court could move, the media trial of Musharraf had started. While the baneful discourse had been on for long, more fire and intensity had added by segments of the chattering classes after Musharraf’s return to Pakistan. In particular, his trial on the charges of high treason before the special court had been turned into a media event.

Politicians should not forget that democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people, and exercised directly by them or by their elected representatives under a free electoral system. The system of electoral democracy empowers the voters to take away the powers of elected members if they fall short of popular aspirations, and/or grossly violate the fundamental ideology. While the system adequately provides the procedure to impeach public office-holders, most elected representatives go scot-free. Voters after having elected their representatives virtually become subjects of powerful elite who ride roughshod over them and shatter their hopes by neglecting their problems. Promises made during election campaign are forgotten, while perks of public offices are fully enjoyed. The sad irony of is that the same elite group is elected over and over, and election campaigns are held as rituals.

Democracy also means equality, and the mere right to vote is not the guarantee for equality. Today, the power of money, particularly corporate muscle-flexing, exercises massive influence on deciding the fate of the poor, the landless, and other underprivileged sections. Under the present system, the people have their ‘say’ only once in five years or whenever there is an election. It is like a contract given to a set of people with the electors endlessly awaiting delivery. But while a contract can be terminated, in a parliamentary democracy, a government elected by the people can be voted out or unseated mid-term only by another set of representatives elected by the people. Even this option is not available when it comes to elected representatives. It is true that in most developing countries, especially South Asian countries, people can only cast their votes, and a person even from upper middle class cannot imagine fielding himself as a candidate.

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