Opinion: Pakistan’s Project Democracy Will Survive

Pakistan’s political system has undoubtedly faced serious challenges in the past. But the dismissal of Sharif need not portend a return to instability or, worse, military rule.

By SHAHID JAVED BURKI — The decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to remove from office Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, is viewed by many in the West as an ominous sign of renewed political instability, if not heralding a return to authoritarianism. But Pakistan’s political history suggests otherwise.

Today’s Pakistan emerged not in August 1947, when it gained independence, but rather in December 1971, when, after a bloody civil war, the country’s eastern region became Bangladesh. Afterward, Pakistan was governed as a parliamentary democracy, led by the charismatic Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

But charges of large-scale vote-rigging in the 1977 elections triggered widespread unrest, which not only brought down Bhutto (who was ultimately executed), but also led to a military coup. Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq took over the presidency in 1978, and remained in the position until his death 10 years later.

Zia’s death brought to power another democratically elected civilian prime minister: Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali and the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country. But her first term was cut short when the president — with whom she had been engaged in a power struggle — dismissed her under the Eighth Amendment of Pakistan’s military-drafted constitution, amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Soon after, Sharif took over as prime minister. His first term ended in 1993, when he resigned under military pressure. That cleared the way for the return of Bhutto, who remained prime minister until 1996, when she was dismissed yet again — this time, by her own Pakistan People’s Party.

In 1997, it was Sharif’s turn again. But his confrontation with the military had intensified over the years, resulting in another coup in 1999, leading to eight years of military rule under Gen. Pervez Musharraf. In 2008, Musharraf resigned under popular pressure, and a new election brought Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who had been assassinated the previous December, to the presidency.

Ignoring constitutional requirements, Zardari did not transfer executive authority to his prime minister, and instead expected the two prime ministers who served under him to follow his orders. Zardari’s five-year tenure reinforced the presidential system in Pakistan. That changed, however, with Sharif’s reelection as prime minister in 2013, when parliamentary democracy was fully restored.

Of the 45 years since the civil war, Pakistan has spent 24 under presidential rule, and just 21 as a parliamentary democracy. But the current situation — characterized by an independent judiciary, free press, active civil society and chastened military — favors the continuation of parliamentarism, regardless of Sharif’s dismissal.

And, indeed, the trajectory of Pakistan’s government so far appears promising. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi — a well-educated former petroleum minister, who is regarded as a skillful manager — is now serving as interim prime minister. That could mean that he will serve for 45 days — long enough to elect Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, as Pakistan’s next leader. Alternatively, Abbasi could remain in office until the next general election, to be held in May 2018.

The latter approach offers distinct political advantages. Shahbaz Sharif has served for almost a decade as chief minister of Punjab, the heartland of the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League, which is still led by Nawaz. And he has some promises to fulfill before leaving that post — beginning with the reduction of electricity brownouts, which undermine economic and personal wellbeing, particularly during what has been the province’s hottest year on record.

Punjab also needs better urban infrastructure. The population of Pakistan’s cities is growing by 6 percent per year, raising demand for improved transport, water management, sanitation and solid-waste collection, as well as for education and health services. This is particularly true in Punjab, where the urban population increased by nearly 26 percent between 2001 and 2011.

Sharif’s provincial administration is already addressing these issues, and tangible improvements are expected by the spring. Keeping Sharif in Punjab may well be the best way to ensure that things go according to plan, and thus that the Pakistan Muslim League can count on strong voter support there in the next election.

That outcome would reinforce the continuation of Pakistan’s parliamentary system, which matters for the rest of the Muslim world as well. Social stability, which so few Muslim countries enjoy, demands political systems that are open, inclusive and representative. This is all the more true today, when the median age across Muslim-majority countries stands at around 25 years. The world’s 1.6 billion young Muslims are, thanks to technology, exposed to the world outside their borders, and tend to favor greater openness and opportunity.

Pakistan’s political system has undoubtedly faced serious challenges in the past. But the dismissal of Sharif need not portend a return to instability or, worse, military rule. Following in the footsteps of India, where a reasonably inclusive political system has underpinned relative peace and stability for almost 70 years, Pakistan seems still to be moving along the path toward democratic consolidation.

• Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect PKonweb’s editorial policy.

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