Pakistan is widely portrayed as the perennial dysfunctional country, where weak elected governments are inevitably overthrown by a powerful army. The violence of recent years has strengthened the perception of a failing state, obscuring a more encouraging trend: the maturing of Pakistani democracy, demonstrated in parliament’s adoption of far-reaching constitutional reforms.
While the continuing violence poses a threat to Pakistan’s development, there is also a risk that prophecies of a military takeover fulfil themselves, particularly in a context where the west badly needs Pakistan’s army for its Afghanistan strategy.
A comparison with Afghanistan illustrates the significance of Pakistan’s reforms: President Hamid Karzai is trying to take control of the appointment of the electoral complaints commissioners, whose integrity was instrumental in curtailing the widespread fraud that marred his re-election last year.
In Pakistan, the recent constitutional reforms reduce the president’s discretion to appoint election commissioners by giving the opposition a voice in this process.
However, the reforms go far beyond the issue of elections, restoring key features of the original constitution of 1973, adopted after the secession of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh. The constitution foresaw a parliamentary system of government and significant competencies for the four provinces, but soon power shifted to the president, a trend that became even more marked under the periods of military rule by Muhammad Zia-Ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.
The reform, known as the 18th amendment, moves powers from the president to the prime minister and parliament, and from the federal level to the provinces. The president can no longer dissolve parliament at will, but only in specific, narrowly defined circumstances. The provinces will be exclusively in charge of a wide range of tasks, including social legislation, family law and criminal law. In signing the amendment, President Asif Ali Zadari will lose much of his authority, though he will remain extremely influential as co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples party.
Beyond the outcome, the constitutional reform is the result of an impressive process. In contrast to the fractious and poisonous relationships between political parties in the past, over the past 10 months all parliamentary parties negotiated the reform in 77 sessions of a parliamentary committee, ably steered by senator Raza Rabbani.
Dissent on various issues was recorded, but all members of the committee reached agreement in the overall interest of reform. Before final signature by the president, the amendments were approved unanimously by parties in both the lower and upper houses of the parliament.
In recent years, democracy has also flourished in other ways: the media has become much more free and courageous, the courts have asserted their independence and the 2008 elections saw a peaceful transfer of power. All three factors were instrumental in the overthrow of the Musharraf regime.
Granted, some of the constitutional changes are controversial and public life is chaotic, with political rhetoric that is often vitriolic and irresponsible. Yet, it is also vibrant and pluralistic, and a sense of public accountability is starting to grow.
Big challenges lie ahead for Pakistan’s politicians. Most importantly, the constitutional amendments need to be implemented. The four provinces need to develop significant capacity to take on additional powers. The federal parliament also needs to adopt electoral reforms to provide a credible and transparent framework for the next parliamentary elections, due in 2013. This is vital, since amendment of the electoral laws in line with international standards would not only enhance confidence in elections, but also reduce the potential for violence and instability.
Election reform would be the logical next step in fixing the political framework. Pakistan is making its third attempt at democracy in 63 tumultuous years since independence.
Focused on Afghanistan, the west supported the military rules of Zia-Ul-Haq and Musharraf, both of whom relied on fundamentalist Islamic parties to sustain their power. These mistakes should not be repeated a third time. Those who think that democracy support does not make good realpolitik should remember that in free elections, Pakistanis have overwhelmingly voted for centrist political parties. Pakistan needs all possible support to make the democratic system work.
Michael Meyer-Resende and Hannah Roberts work for Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based organisation supporting political participation, with a programme underway in Pakistan. Roberts was the deputy chief observer of the EU Election Observation Mission to the 2008 elections in Pakistan