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Pakistan’s General Election Places Country in Sticky Situation

Just the other day I was watching a middle-aged news reporter, on a prominent mainstream Pakistani news channel, walk around the streets of Lahore, a mic in his hand, asking the various individuals who came his way their political alignments in light of the coming election. Given that he was operating in the heart of the PML-N Punjab stronghold, his questions usually started off with a predisposed assumption, right more often than not, that the person he was speaking to was a PML-N supporter.

What stood out while watching these interactions with the Pakistani electorate was how they usually unfolded. You would have the traditional PML-N supporter arguing the bias of the establishment (military) against them, with the occasional PML-turned-PTI supporter arguing the need for the corrupt status-quo to be removed. One PML-N supporter, I vividly remember, even professed the statement: “No matter the corruption, I will still support Sharif,” capturing a vague picture of the mindset that most other PML-N supporters had during this news segment. With statements like these, there is little holding back people like Sharif from engaging in corruption, apart from a moral conscience. After all, when you have your own constituents declaring their acceptance of you, even if you are found corrupt, it introduces a dangerous mindset.

On the 6th of July 2018, Nawaz Sharif was handed a fine of £8 million alongside 10 years in jail. My initial reaction was a mixture of disbelief, surprise and, in the end, happiness. This was not happiness stemming from a vested interest or from seeing the political landscape work in favor of another party. No, this was happiness stemming from seeing the general discontent and sufferings of the informed, aware Pakistani materialize in a decision that superficially appeared to be legally sound. However, after that initial phase of happiness started to wear off, the reality of the situation began to expose itself.

Whether the means through which Sharif was sentenced are questionable or not, the end remains undeniable. Sharif, at least in my eyes, is and always will remain to be one of the many participants of the political system that infiltrated every level of state infrastructure and, in that infiltration, sowed the seeds for not only corruption, but also inefficiency and misaligned incentives to grow. An unstable economy, a growing fiscal risk, a devaluing currency, an energy crisis; all problems that existed in the 1990s and ones that, by and large, still exist today albeit with some fluctuations.

A particularly appropriate comment made by Marvin G. Weinbaum and later picked up by Matthew McCartney in his 2011 book on Pakistan’s political economy stands out. Weinbaum argues that the 90s saw a “crisis of authority”; the opposition would see any government in power and “turn to religious extremists or the military…rather than political debate.” A deployment of power, through any means necessary, even if those means involved the use of corruption. Citing Sharif as a prominent example of this, “over 140 cases of corruption had been filed against Nawaz Sharif and his family,” between 1993 and 1995 alone.

It seems that the situation is not so much different almost 30 years later. The status-quo is still always seen as the usurper, using treason to get its way. The political office is still contested for, by and large, not to bring about a transformative change, but rather to be the grand overseer of all affairs of the country; a continuing power struggle dominated by keeping, not the demands of the masses, but rather the interests of the few central. However, with the news of a corrupt leader disposed of not through the military coups of the past, but rather through the decision of a judiciary, my hopes sprang up and, to me initially, Pakistan was beginning to show the signs of a true democracy.

Nonetheless, as stated before, after that initial phase of wonderment started to wear off, the reality of the situation began to expose itself. The reality being that the conviction of Sharif and the actions taken against PML-N supporters could threaten the democratic underpinnings of the country. This is not an advocacy of Sharif’s actions, but this is to place a question in front of the Pakistani public: should we subscribe to democratic, utopian ideals even for someone like Sharif or should we allow the democratic underpinnings of the country to be threatened under the pretense of necessary justice, no matter the consequences?

If you were to ask me this question now, instead of in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, then I would reply with the former. The reason is because the option available on the other side is more damaging even to the people who, like me, support the verdict’s conclusion. Pakistan’s history is fraught with examples of economic crises, military dictatorships, persecution of religious minorities, and terrorism. However, a very important issue that is often overlooked and is, perhaps, the leading cause of the aforementioned issues is the decaying of Pakistan’s institutions. Therein lies the problem: if the means through which the verdict was achieved are accepted, the decay of Pakistan’s institutions could become the ‘consequences.’

There are many problems that currently plague Pakistan’s judiciary, but one in particular that makes some people question the verdict: an overwhelming and underlying military presence in the courts. Tayyab Mahmud saw this as “the Pakistani courts perversely validat[ing]…military governance.” Musharraf himself stated in an interview that “the courts work under pressure behind the scene..[and] the army chief had a role to play in releasing the pressure”; it does remain that evidence of the military involving itself in the affairs of the judiciary is alarming, whether it be to release or initiate pressure.

Therefore, the main contention with the judiciary’s verdict is its history with the military. Pile this on top of the 21st Amendment that placed the military in a position to try and sentence terrorism suspects through their own judicial process and you have a direct challenge to one of the most important underpinnings of democracy: an independent judiciary.

The problem is that even if the recent verdict, when viewed in singularity, was free of military interference, the damage has already been done. Pakistan’s main institutions like the judiciary have reached a point where their decisions are not widely accepted, even by leading political figures, all because of an overwhelming military presence. The issue is not whether Sharif is corrupt or not. The issue is that even a verdict declaring the corruption of people like Sharif, no matter how much it might appeal to some people, cannot go without controversy; the underlying institution that forms the basis of that verdict is brought into contention and that, to me, is the real issue: the questioning of the judiciary and the decisions made by constitutionally established, autonomous institutions like the NAB (National Accountability Bureau).

It is within that questioning lie further questions: is the verdict based on the corruption of Sharif, or is corruption used as a façade to remove a political figure because of his foreign policy differences with the military? Would Sharif even be tried for his blatant corruption were it not for his foreign policy differences? The answer to these questions reminds me of a Dawn article published in October 2016 which describes a heated exchange that took place between leading figures of the PML-N and the military. The exchange involved a clear call to convict and arrest the Jaish-i-Mohmmad and Masood Azhar, labelling the main impediment to this being the military establishment’s “behind the scenes” efforts.

Is this entire verdict simply the establishment’s efforts to stop heated exchanges like these developing further? And while the likes of Sharif are convicted, we have to ask ourselves another question; would a similar trial if undertaken against Musharraf or a present-day Zia-ul-Haq garner the same results: swift and seamless conviction? Is this a case of corruption against democracy or military against democracy?

Therefore, within this link between a failing state and failing institutions, the military establishment is rightly blamed as a prevalent cause. However, while making this link what is often also done is to keep political figures as individuals who are bystanders to the ‘system,’ a product of it; their shortcomings, their inefficiencies apparently cannot be pinpointed as the main cause because the cause is an overarching, degenerative failure of state institutions. On the contrary, I see the same type of corruption and inefficiency brought on by the likes of Sharif and others to be an equally relevant cause, preceding the military, of failing institutions. When participants of the democratic system are themselves not properly aligned with the interests of those that they claim to represent, this creates an opportunity for bodies like the military to get involved.

Ishrat Husain’s extremely pertinent paper looks at exactly this, to some extent. Husain starts off by showing how, during the first 40 years of Pakistan, state institutions were, for the most part, intact and functioning albeit with some minor upsets. What changed was the decline in state services; the same type of commitment to efficiency and meritocracy that had come to dominate the civil services was abandoned since the 1990s as democratic actors came into play. Whereas, the military on the other hand represented everything that the state was not: an image of strength albeit a dangerous image of strength.

The issue as it currently unfolds involves a very grey area and a sticky situation. On one hand, we should not accept undemocratic processes with the justification that they are necessary evils, whereas neither can we allow the corrupt status-quo to run amok with the excuse of adhering to utopian democratic ideals.

As a result, although the military continues to operate under the radar, with a hand in public policy, we have to ask ourselves, who should we blame? The military who occupied an institutional void or state actors who, in their own personal disputes and power-hungry pursuits, forgot the task at hand: keep state institutions secure and running? Most of these state actors who were part of the democratic interludes in Pakistan’s history, instead of seeing these interludes as an opportunity to cement the foundations of the country and put aside personal vendettas, on the contrary, were all very content and happy, for the most part, with using the guise of religion and the power of the military when it came to advancing their own interests, their own hegemony of power.

And in that process, they overlooked the type of dangerous precedents they were setting, the type of power they were implicitly providing actors like the military with. Consequently, when it has come to this power growing out of control, it is they themselves who are panicking. The Pakistani military is an establishment that has constantly threatened the democratic underpinnings of the country. However, is the establishment working behind the scenes or was it the behind the scenes corruption of people like Sharif that allowed this establishment to grow? Who exactly is the perpetrator: the military that constantly oversteps its boundaries, the type of corrupt individuals like Sharif who in their personal pursuits forgot the precedents they were setting, or both?