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Why a democratic transfer of power is possible in Pakistan

The whole world is watching Pakistan with anticipation, hoping for a successful democratic transition -- amid fears of a threat to its upcoming general election. Incidents such as the Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir ul Qadri’s march and the Supreme Court’s verdict against the Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf underline this fear writes Anuradha Rai

Mar 7, 2013

By Anuradha Rai

The whole world is watching Pakistan with anticipation, hoping for a successful democratic transition -- amid fears of a threat to its upcoming general election. Incidents such as the Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir ul Qadri’s march and the Supreme Court’s verdict against the Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf underline this fear. It is even speculated that the military establishment is behind the spread of such a fear psychosis.

The fear of military involvement was underscored when a close aide of the Prime Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, remarked: “The military can intervene at this moment as the Supreme Court has opened a way for it.” However, the military was seemingly not involved, and there is no strong evidence to prove otherwise. After the Qadri issue was successfully resolved by a historic consensus among all the political parties – with all of them supporting the democratic government and rejecting demands to include the military and the Supreme Court in the transitional government -- belief in the democratic system was restored. This was further cemented when the Supreme Court denied Qadri’s demand to reconstitute the Election Commission.

There are several vital reasons why Qadri’s demands would be detrimental to the democratic transition of power in Pakistan. Important among them is that the Pakistan Army is busy fighting the insurgent group Tehreek-E-Taliban (TTP) and has little time to engage in the internal politics of the country. On external matters, on December 23, 2012, the news agency Reuters and others reported that the powerful army chief had made reconciliation with the warring factions in Afghanistan and promoting peace with the Taliban his top priority.

There is a signal that the army, under the leadership of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is changing its attitude towards involvement in the political process of the country. Arguably, Pakistan’s most powerful man, he has earned a reputation as a thoughtful commander who has curbed the military's tendency to intervene overtly in politics. In a speech to officers in Rawalpindi in November 2012, Kayani indicated that the army’s conception of its role in Pakistan and the region was changing, arguing, “As a nation we are passing through a defining phase… We are critically looking at the mistakes made in the past and trying to set the course for a better future.”

Kayani has also supported Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in holding repeated rounds of discussions with her Afghan counterparts. Moreover, against the backdrop of consultations within the ruling coalition on dissolving Parliament ahead of the next general election, expected to be held in May 2013, Kayani had a two-hour meeting with the Prime Minister on January 31, 2013, most likely to indicate the army’s support to the democratic process of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has passed many judgements that have threatened the stability of the government. The court seems determined to resolve the issue of President Asif Ali Zardari’s involvement in corruption cases, but at the same time has realised that any strong measures against the current government could create a vacuum of power and heighten lawlessness, leading to state failure. It has, however, kept the issue of corruption charges against Zardari alive, as demonstrated in the dismissal of former Prime Minister Syed Gilani on charges of contempt of court. Also testimony to this are the court’s directive to reopen the NRO case on July 12, 2012, and orders to the new Prime Minister to start investigations in the case by writing a letter to the Swiss authorities. It had even ordered the arrest of Ashraf in a Rental Power Projects case on January 14, 2013.

However, with the current developments and the government’s move to appoint an interim government in the coming days, the Supreme Court seems more concerned for the success of the upcoming elections. In a bid to quell unease in the country that democracy may be derailed, the court on January 30, 2013, restrained the military and civilian high commands from doing anything that might delay the upcoming general election.

Another reason for the possibility of a peaceful transition of power is the willingness of the opposition parties. The ruling and opposition parties have agreed on the issue of strengthening the democratic system of the country, and a democratic transfer of power. They acknowledged that any conspiracy against the ruling government will put the democratic process in deep trouble. This mutual understanding of the parties helped resolve the crisis that started with rejecting Qadri’s demands and showing support to the ruling coalition.

The conciliation between the political parties was an important move. According to the ‘Islamabad Long March Declaration’, the government agreed to dissolve the National Assembly before its term ends in mid-March, giving 90 days until elections are held. These are significant developments that show that Pakistan is capable of democratic transition, a peaceful first in its history of 65 years. With the legislature, clergy and army supporting transition, aided by the political parties, history is being written.

(Anuradha Rai is student of the Centre for International Politics and Disarmament in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. To contact this author or leave feedback about this article kindly contact southasiamonitor1@gmail.com)

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