A recent seminar brought together a panel of academics to discuss current events impacting on Pakistan’s political landscape

‘Withered democracy in Pakistan and the role of the deep state’ was the theme for discussion at The Democracy Forum’s latest London seminar, held at Senate House in the wake of Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from power.

In his opening speech, TDF president Lord Bruce addressed the essential paradox of Pakistan as the only state in modern times to be established on the basis of a religious precept, and touched on its dysfunctional evolution, in defiance of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s founding vision. Introducing the topic and speakers, chair Dr William Crawley of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies reminded the audience that, although the panel would be looking at the concept of the deep state in relation to Pakistan, the concept is by no means unique to that country.

Dr Farzana Shaikh, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, welcomed this opportunity for a fresh exchange of views, but took issue with the seminar’s title. ‘Withered’, she said, suggested something that had once been robust, and was therefore somewhat misplaced when applied to Pakistan’s democracy. A more apt description of the country’s political reality was ‘bonsai democracy’, which recalls something whose growth is restricted by its environment. She also questioned the use of the term ‘deep state’; while she conceded that Pakistan is not immune to manipulation from extra-constitutional forces, as evidenced by history, the emergence in the last decade of cohesive institutional forces that have sought to muscle in on space once thought to be the preserve of the so-called ‘deep state’ has arguably made the business of conspiring against democracy far more challenging than at any time in the past.

What continues to frustrate the cause of democracy in Pakistan is not so much the deep state, suggested Shaikh, as a state of mind, still uncertain about how best to reconcile the secular ideas of democracy with Pakistan’s complex attachment to laws informed by Islam. The influence of this ‘state of mind’ extended well beyond what is commonly understood as the ‘deep state’ into all aspects of Pakistani life, from party politics to the media and the reshaping of the constitution. Nowhere had this been more keenly felt in recent times than in the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court for violating the constitution under Articles 62 and 63, and for failing to meet the standards for a ‘good Muslim’ to become a member of parliament.

The judiciary had emerged in recent years as an independent force, said Shaikh, but it also had an ‘unenviable record’ of endorsing past military dictatorships. She highlighted concerns that the judiciary could again become the instrument of choice for the military to stage so-called ‘judicial coups’ against wayward governments, when outright military takeovers are frowned on. Opinion was deeply divided, she added, over whether to regard Sharif’s dismissal as a giant step for accountability, or a backward step for democracy.

For Georgetown University’s Dr Christine Fair, it was unsurprising that Nawaz Sharif had finally been ousted in a judicial coup; rather, she was surprised he had held on to power for as long as he did, as the army had its sights on him. Touching briefly on what she called Jinnah’s duplicity and how he had been able to sell a very inchoate notion of Pakistan to voters, Fair said that, unlike Farzana Shaikh, she did not view Pakistan’s judiciary as an independent actor because, over the last few years, she had seen a ‘new condominium’ emerging between the Army and the Supreme Court.

Audience & panel in the Senate Room
Audience & panel in the Senate Room

In 2008/9, the return to democracy was increasingly alarming for the Pakistan military, yet Pakistanis were increasingly hankering for ‘messy’ democracy over autocracy. After President Asif Ali Zardari gave away the power of the president to dissolve the National Assembly, the Army had to develop new tools to keep pruning the grass of democracy, preventing it from taking root in Pakistan. It remained concerned about how to keep democracy on a leash. When Pakistan’s justices decided to take on the generals, concluded Dr Fair, maybe we would have something to celebrate. In the meantime, however, recent events had shown that the Supreme Court had provided another tool, allowing the military to collude in bringing down an imperfect, but still democratically-elected, government.

Lawrence Sáez, Professor in the Political Economy of Asia at SOAS, had initially considered the ousting of the corrupt Nawaz Sharif as a positive step, but had then changed his view, since it had increased unaccountability in Pakistan. Using illustrative slides, he discussed governance features and changes in authority trends in the country, looking at periods of short-lived democracy punctuated by a drastic return to autocracy. Democracy, accountability and transparency were often one and the same, but in Pakistan, especially in relation to the notion of the deep state, there was a disconnect. Democracy could exist side by side with such features of governance as corruption and lack of accountability.

Very few politicians in Pakistan, argued Sáez, meet standards of accountability, leading to figureheads rising to power. Completely dysfunctional political systems such as Pakistan’s did not have the checks and balances of some other systems.

Having noted that this seminar convened on the anniversary of the death of Pakistan’s controversial military leader, General Zia ul-Huq, Burzine Waghmar, a senior teaching fellow at SOAS, quoted from a 1984 issue of Pakistan’s leading English language monthly, The Herald, in which Ra’ana Khan, widow of Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, said that both Jinnah and her husband would have been ‘bumped off’ if they were still around in today’s Pakistan. Waghmar also drew attention to the complicity of the country’s deep state and its proxies in what he called the ‘pick up and dump routine’ in Balochistan, a province racked by insurgency since its 1948 accession to Pakistan.

In a presentation based on extensive ground level research, Professor Marie Lall, Chair in Education and South Asian Studies at UCL’s Institute of Education, looked at ideas of citizenship and young people’s relationship with the state in Pakistan, offering a snapshot of a nation in which almost 60 per cent of the population are under 24, making them an important voting demographic. She spoke of the youth’s confidence – or lack thereof – in Pakistan’s institutions, ranging from 60 per cent having faith in the army to less than 10 per cent trusting the national government.

Many of the 25 million potential voters between 18 and 29 were not actually registered to vote, and it was unclear how many cast their votes, said Lall. Young people were often disillusioned; the reasons for their disenchantment and lack of political participation included too much corruption, violence and lack of role models. Some felt that Islam was not compatible with democracy. There were strong views across both rural and urban areas about the ‘right’ kind of Islam, with some young people saying that this was non-sectarian.

Democracy did not seem to be the system of choice among the young in Pakistan, with a tendency towards a pro-order and/or pro-army view among the more educated youth. Lall spoke of the country’s ‘national narrative’, in which the role of the army cannot be questioned. Criticising the army was considered unpatriotic and ‘political suicide’, and there was much self-censorship among the media and bloggers. Education, too, was starting to play a part, with democracy being questioned at universities.

Pakistan faces a crisis in the relationship between the individual and the state, Lall concluded. Though she did not necessarily believe that democracy would be the ideal system, young people needed to feel that their rights were being met.

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