By- Zainab Zafar
(Law Student at the University of Exeter)
As Pakistan nears its golden jubilee for the Constitution of 1973, it raises both fears and hopes for the future of our democracy. The question of great pertinence arises: how strong is our constitution? Pakistan has had a tainted history with its democracy, with several coup d’états and having spent a large chunk of its independence under military rule, it is hard to say how strong our constitution has served us. Yet, despite its blemished past, the constitution still prevails. To analyze the political future that Pakistan is headed for it is essential to look at two key components: firstly, how far has our constitution been an effective mechanism to counter abuse of power by vested interests and secondly the continuous tango with populist ideologies.
Looking at the current state of politics in Pakistan, democracy acts in its thinnest form to put on a facade to cover its undemocratic nature. Under this theme, democracy in its name stays intact, not in an ideal but in a plebiscitary form. It can be argued what Pakistan exists today is merely an illiberal democracy run by populists. An illiberal democracy can best be described as a form of governance where regimes retain power through elections, but rule of law remains weak. Under this guise, prominent parties continue to stay in power with poor civil liberties granted. An example of our surface-level democracy can be seen through the fact Pakistan in its seventy-six years of independence has failed to have a single Prime Minister complete a 5-year term. In the current term, Imran Khan was ousted as Prime Minister under a vote of no-confidence and the Supreme Court managed to separate itself from other governing institutions to uphold that this is merely illiberal democracy. The presence of a plebiscitary act is still not followed by the protection of civil liberties.
In more recent affairs, President ArifAlvi’s announcement of the election date was marred with controversy. He exceeded his powers. If this mistake is rectified, it will show how strong the constitution is in upholding itself against those who have abused its power by exceeding their own. Now the Supreme Court of Pakistan has also taken a suo motto to break the constitutional logjam. The track record of the Apex Court is odd as it always came up with some sort of doctrine of necessity. Equally true is the fact that primarily political questions cannot be settled only judicially.
While authored by legal brains, the constitution remains highly procedural. It assumes automatic political civility, a rare trait in Pakistan. A key critique of this presumed social contract is the effective implementation of legislation by the executive. Laws made for the betterment such as the Zainab Alert or the provision of free and compulsory education are not adhered to. Minority demographics are easily categorized as secondary citizens who are not provided with basic access to these ‘good’ laws. From the 230 million citizens residing in the country, how many have understood and agreed to this social contract?
It is on the executive to perform its duties and implement these laws, but it is on our democracy to include citizens in this process. If democracy is ‘for’ the people, we must stop and question how far we have truly made our system for the people.
In examining its effectiveness, Pakistan’s constitution has been under heavy scrutiny for its discriminatory aspects. Last week alone, the International Press Institute (IPI) showed how alarming the new proposed bill is to punish those who criticize the military. The press, which acts as a watchdog over political affairs and a mechanism of accountability being shunned, is a signpost to Pakistan’s democratic backsliding. The inadequate protection of journalists and the control over freedom of the press shows that as Pakistan reaches the50-year mark of its Constitutional democracy, it does not seem to be living up to its name. Already vague Article 19 pertaining to Freedom of Expression has failed to provide safe discursive spaces both in the new and old media and more importantly in the public sphere.
While Imran Khan has been known to utilize rhetoric and be one with the people, his rallies have often led to discourse. This chaos is not one-sided. Banning his speech broadcasting can be seen as a protection of public discourse or it can be seen as undemocratic, in either case, it does not shy away from the rising populism in Pakistan and the danger it poses for its future.
Populism portrays an ‘us’ and ‘them’ ideology. The common people are against the elites (those in positions of power). Holding anti-establishment sentiment, populist leaders often try to merge themselves with the ‘common man’ to gain support. Pinching on emotion and rhetoric they can sustain power. In recent years, Imran Khan has come under the lens of being a populist. Using his speech to amplify euphoria in the youth and make promises to those miserable under the status quo, to gain power. Under the definition of a populist many leaders Pakistan has seen can be classified into the same category. Populism is not a new concept in Pakistan, but its high appeal to the nation’s citizens is worrying.
With Pakistan’s current state of political instability met with its growing socio-economic issues, populist ideas will take precedence in people’s eyes for the upcoming general elections. Pakistan suffers from a myriad of issues. In the aftermath of the catastrophic floods, the fear of a fragile economy and a rapidly growing inhabitable environment for its citizens, there is a lot of room to allow populists to gain power.
Unlike other countries where populism has led to a fearful dictatorship, Pakistan’s worry lies not in authoritarian power but in instability. Populist rhetoric and promises cater to this. Populists’ narratives balance a thin line between upholding constitutional power and misusing it under the name of democracy. The abuse of power and potential to stay stuck in a loop of illiberal democracy is headed for Pakistan.
To add on, populism in Pakistan has another window open to it. The prominence of extremist religious rhetoric to overshadow decisions by branches of government is a fear that arises amidst this instability.
The general elections will tell how paralyzing the populism threat is to Pakistan’s future, on its jubilee celebration.There are also many milestones Pakistan has crossed in ensuring fundamental rights and fighting to uphold democracy. The Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018 shows the growth in our constitutional democracy in protecting citizens. Judicial independence was seen with the ousting of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan and with its Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Bill, 2022, which now protects women holding jobs in both the formal and informal sectors, are all testimony to the resilience of our constitution and its ability to change.
As the elections grow closer, the nation’s political stability is of high importance. The question posed at the beginning of whether the Pakistani constitution is strong can only be answered with time. If it continues to remain fighting for a democratic nation despite the odds, it is certainly not a weak constitution but rather one in need of reform to act as a saviour to a country in dire need of stability.