This is a historic moment in the history of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan, as the fourth consecutive parliament since 2002 has completed its five-year term. Therefore, this should have been a moment of jubilation and celebration for the staunch supporters of a democratic Pakistan. But the fact is that all those who desire a functioning democracy in Pakistan find themselves worried and anguished, as constitutional democracy seems to be undergoing yet another crisis.
In the past two decades, Pakistani democracy has survived two stage-managed dharnas (2012 and 2014), two judicial coups (the removal of two elected Prime Ministers through judicial verdicts) and one comprehensively engineered election in 2018. But the crisis that this so-called democratic government of the PDM and PPP is leaving behind is far bigger compared to all these past imbroglios.
During the last fifteen months, the direct tussle between the PDM government, Imran Khan’s PTI and the military establishment has made a mockery of parliamentary sovereignty and judicial independence in Pakistan. Everyone now knows which honourable judge of the Supreme Court and High Court belongs to which side of the aisle.
Most probably, the elections will not be held within the stipulated constitutional timeframe this time and the worst kind of constitutional crisis is in the offing.
On the parliamentary side, the manner in which hasty anti-human rights legislation was passed from the outgoing National Assembly during its last month in office, allegedly on the whims of the establishment made it a laughing stock among the larger populace.
The general elections for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies are constitutionally due in October-November, and there should have been no doubt in anyone’s mind about this, but now very dark clouds surround the forthcoming elections. All political and constitutional experts predict that a three to four months delay in the elections is now inevitable because after the approval of the new census in the Council of Common Interests (CCI) meeting convened on August 05; a fresh delimitation is mandatory according to the Constitution’s Article 51, which will require around four months for the process to take its due course. Thus, by delaying the CCI meeting and then convening it near the completion of the tenure of the National Assembly, an excuse has been created for delaying General Elections all the way to February/March 2024. But after what transpired with the decisions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan only a few months ago, no one can be sure about the possibility of General Elections, even in February/March 2024.
Most probably, the elections will not be held within the stipulated constitutional timeframe this time and the worst kind of constitutional crisis is in the offing. This uncertainty stems from the decisions of the Election Commission and the PDM government not to hold elections for the provincial assemblies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over excuses of poor security and a precarious financial situation, despite clear instructions and decisions from the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The conduct of Supreme Court judges and the manner in which those decisions were made was fairly questioned and criticised, but one should be aware that once decisions are made, clearly defying the orders of the apex court will have serious consequences for the implementation of the Constitution in the future. If democratic governments could defy the orders of the judiciary on constitutional matters, then who will make non-democratic and caretaker governments abide by the Constitution.
The appointment of Senator Anwaarul Haq Kakar of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) as the eighth caretaker Prime Minister has further deepened those fears. Despite the fact that he is a consensus candidate and even the out of favor PTI has responded positively to his appointment, strong connections between the BAP and the military establishment since its birth in March 2018 provide reason for genuine fear. After becoming the caretaker PM, Mr. Kakar has resigned from his BAP party membership, but being a founding member of BAP, his ability to act independently will remain questionable. Therefore, in the case that the powerful state elite decides to delay the elections for even longer, he may not be able to resist their choice.
These parties do not realise that ultimately the people of Pakistan are the biggest losers if constitutionalism, human rights and democracy are compromised. They have forgotten that the axe swings both ways.
Moreover, even from the statements of the ministers of the outgoing PDM government, it appears the PDM parties will not resist if the elections are delayed until February/March of next year. But once the 90-days mandatory constitutional requirement is violated, what is the guarantee that elections would be held at all, let alone in February/March 2024. I wonder - if that happens then what moral authority do the political parties have in demanding timely elections. What will even be the definition of the word ‘timely’? Six months, a year, or two years? Once the 90-days constitutional limit is crossed, then who will determine the next deadline?
Political parties in Pakistan must not forget that democracy and constitutionalism go hand in hand. With their compromises on the sanctity of the Constitution, they have compromised the democratic future of Pakistan as well. Currently, they see all developments exclusively through the prism of preventing the PTI and Imran Khan from taking power. They even supported legislation levying even more curbs on human rights because they felt it would be more damaging for the PTI. These parties do not realise that ultimately the people of Pakistan are the biggest losers if constitutionalism, human rights and democracy are compromised. They have forgotten that the axe swings both ways.
The state elite, which includes the judiciary, military and bureaucracy, can play hard and fast with the Constitution because they have always benefitted from tinkering with the constitution. On the other hand, for the political parties, civil society and the people of Pakistan, the Constitution is always the last line of defense. Therefore, they should never think of compromising on the sanctity of the Constitution, rather the Constitution must be a redline for all political parties. On its 76th birthday, Pakistan is still oscillating between democracy and dictatorship, or a hybrid thereof, because no one has seriously taken up the cause of protecting the sanctity of the Constitution.