The convenient use of democracy as a buzzword

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As and when required

Nawaz Sharif’s return to power in 2013 with a heavy mandate after nine years in exile and an additional five in the opposition was no mean feat. In the process Imran Khan’s PTI emerged as the third largest party in the country — a shift in the political landscape that has all but eliminated PPP as a formidable political opponent in Punjab.

‘Restoration of democracy’ was Nawaz’s reentry ticket into the active politics of Pakistan during Musharraf’s final years. As an opposition party the PML-N kept its role fluid by becoming a friendly opposition or a tough one when it suited them. During PPP’s five years in power Nawaz also became a self-styled ‘protector of democracy’ and staunch upholder of the constitution.

His active part in the lawyers’ movement had little do with the restoration of judges and more with the impending impeachment of Musharraf who had ousted him in 1999. The movement, which was a result of Musharraf sacking ten Supreme Court judges including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and declaring a temporary emergency in the country, proved to be his undoing. A short-lived coalition between the PPP and the PML-N was able to make Musharraf resign and leave the country.

 

Nawaz had to be forced out rather than resign himself after his foreign assets were revealed in the Panama Papers. After being removed from office he is now relentlessly criticising the judiciary for the decision against him. The irony here is palpable as he censured Gillani for doing the same when he was facing similar music

 

PPP’s tenure as the ruling party had its share of scandals, Memogate being one of them. Nawaz milked that opportunity to lambaste the government to the fullest and even appeared in full lawyer’s attire at the Supreme Court to submit his party’s petition for a probe into the scandal.

Yousaf Raza Gillani, who was prime minister at the time, was sent packing by the Supreme Court for contempt of court after he refused to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Asif Ali Zardari who as president enjoyed immunity.

Gillani maintained that only the parliament could disqualify him and refused to accept the SC verdict. Nawaz Sharif — taking advantage of a government under pressure — demanded Gillani’s immediate resignation in a series of passionate speeches at rallies and media appearances deeming his actions to be against the constitution and judiciary.

The 2013 general elections saw the first civilian transfer of power following the completion of a full five-year term by a democratically elected government. With the transition also came a sense of security in that the room for unconstitutional adventures by certain institutions was now much less.

With that comfort in mind and a simple majority in the bag Nawaz predicted smooth sailing this time. He took for granted the opposition that no longer only consisted of the PPP but the PTI as well – a much tougher opponent.

Allegations of widespread election rigging was the first significant challenge Nawaz had to face and he did not handle it particularly well. Imran Khan had to unwillingly accept Sharif’s landslide win but with it he requested results from four constituencies to be reviewed and votes verified. Not an illegitimate demand.

Nawaz’s arrogance could not allow for this to happen. He vehemently refused to do so and a four-month sit-in ensued in the capital. Had the PPP opted to join the sit-in and not support the PML-N in parliament, Nawaz was done for. It was quite a spectacle watching Nawaz Sharif in the National Assembly trying to pacify a particularly cross Chaudhry Nisar who was receiving a well-articulated dressing down from Aitzaz Ahsan. With all its might in the lower house the PML-N had to sit and listen.

Video of that exchange is below courtesy PTV (for online readers): 

Although the Supreme Court would eventually disqualify Nawaz over a failure to disclose a receivable salary in his election nomination papers, signs of their disapproval over his style of governance had become apparent much before.

In a damning judgment in August of 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that the prime minister could not act unilaterally on the country’s financial issues or approve any ordinance without first getting the federal cabinet’s approval.

Important decisions having far reaching consequences with regards to budgetary expenditure were being authorised without consulting the cabinet. This was symptomatic of Nawaz’s style of zero transparency when it came to the economy and foreign policy among other national strategic issues. He preferred to have those discussions in private with his kitchen cabinet and make decisions.

An aversion to parliament for discussing key issues remained a hallmark of the better part four years Nawaz spent in office as evidenced by the lack of important legislation passed during that time. Parliament was considered important only when it was absolutely necessary. For example, when the Panama Papers were released Nawaz took the floor of the house to plead his innocence.

Nawaz had to be forced out rather than resign himself after his foreign assets were revealed in the Panama Papers. After being removed from office he is now relentlessly criticising the judiciary for the decision against him. The irony here is palpable as he censured Gillani for doing the same when he was facing similar music.

For that matter even the so-called ‘party of change’ PTI is all talk but little action when it comes to being non-status quo and democratic. It was a welcome move by Imran Khan to have irregularities in PTI’s intra-party elections — prior to the general elections of 2013 — be investigated by an election tribunal headed by Justice (r) Wajihuddin Ahmed.

When his findings and recommendations called for the removal of several party bigwigs for misconduct, including Pervez Khattak and Jehangir Tareen, Imran Khan sacked Wajihuddin instead. Imran Khan himself avoids parliament like the plague only attending it only when absolutely necessary.

Parliament has become the least preferred place for debating and resolving key national issues. Exemplary attendance from the ruling party was observed in the National Assembly to stop a constitutional amendment that would bar a disqualified member to be party president but in the Senate the crucial delimitation bill is yet to be tabled due to lack of quorum after multiple attempts.

During his third stint as prime minister Nawaz Sharif proved that he is only capable of using democracy, the constitution and parliament as mere buzzwords while campaigning for his party or being part of the opposition. Once in power this system of government, the law of the land and an assembly to have structured debate and pass laws become a severe inconvenience for him.

It seems highly unlikely that Nawaz will make a full recovery from his disqualification and get a fourth chance at being prime minister. If by some miracle he pulls that off no one should expect his attitude towards democracy, parliament and the constitution to change.

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