Upholding the law, undermining the ballot

Published: June 26, 2012
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As long as unelected centers of power in Pakistan continue to hold hostage the function of evicting elected leaders, democratic consolidation is unlikely. ILLUSTRATION: SHAHERYAR POPALZAI

Pakistan has always been a tough case for those who like to see democracy as a black and white affair; either a country is a democracy or it is not. The periods in which elected governments have held power have been described as “quasi-democratic”, “sham democracy”, “civilian autocracy” and other such unpalatable terms. However, many were looking towards the completion of this particular elected government’s term as a historical first in Pakistan’s intermittent democratisation process.

Would the term completion have amounted to mere symbolism and what does the judicial ouster of the Prime Minister imply for Pakistan’s political future?

From a legal standpoint, the Pakistani Supreme Court has acted in accordance with Article 63(1) of the Constitution which articulates the grounds and process of disqualification of a person from membership of the Parliament. Indeed, the SC has acted well within its constitutional bounds and the decision is airtight within the internal logic of the law.

However, while Gilani has been disqualified for contempt of court, few are celebrating the legal correctness of the SC’s decision. The public endorsement, if any, has been due to Gilani’s perceived political failure to deliver on issues of power shortage, inflation etc.

This provides valuable insight into the minds of the Pakistani electorate. They seem to be looking not to their vote, but rather towards unelected institutions to hold leaders accountable for their political performance.

Historically, the power to evict an incumbent government by voting it out is one that has never been vested in the Pakistani electorate. This political “veto” as it were, has been the exclusive domain of the Pakistani Army and the office of the President. Between these two unelected centres of power, no elected government has completed a full term and faced the public in elections.

It is unsurprising then that Pakistani voters turn to events other than elections to unseat disappointing incumbents.

The new prime minister has now been sworn in and the smooth transition, without any assemblies being dissolved, may have assuaged fears that the SC decision would “derail” democracy altogether. The Parliament may have elected a new PM and the rule of law has arguably been upheld in the face of power, but the Pakistani voters have once again been robbed of the chance to vote out a head of state. This time it is not the military or the executive, but the judicial branch that has stepped in. Even if it has not overstepped its role, the actions bear significant political consequences.

The mere practice of elections and associated processes may serve to allow Pakistan to continue calling itself a democracy. However, after a country has adopted democratic procedures the next step is democratic consolidation. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, political scientists who have written vastly on democratisation in various parts of the world, view a consolidated democracy as one where democracy is “the only game in town”. This implies not just a checklist of rules and procedures, but also the embedding of democratic principles in institutions and indeed, in the attitudes and behaviour of politicians and voters.

As long as unelected centers of power in Pakistan continue to hold hostage the function of evicting elected leaders, democratic consolidation is unlikely.

What the Gilani ouster means for democracy and the upcoming elections is a cheapening of the Pakistani ballot.

Voting politicians in on the basis of pre-electoral promises and campaign slogans is one thing, but holding them accountable through the threat of being voted out is another. Until Pakistani voters do not hold the power to do both, it is disingenuous to call on them to “use their vote” as a weapon against ineffective and corrupt leadership. It is also unreasonable to expect sitting governments to be exclusively responsive to voters’ demands rather than remain beholden to those who exercise the political veto.

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Sarah Khan

A PhD student in political science with an interest in comparative constitutionalism and international law. Sarah tweets @_sarahkhan

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