Pakistan at 75: Attacks against democratic institutions have to stop

Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Imran Khan addresses supporters during a rally to press the government for fresh elections, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 13. (K.M. Chaudary/AP)
Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Imran Khan addresses supporters during a rally to press the government for fresh elections, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 13. (K.M. Chaudary/AP)

Pakistan has just turned 75. The anniversary should be a cause for celebration, but also for serious self-criticism. Many Pakistanis are fond of citing our achievement of becoming the world’s first Muslim nuclear power. But how are nuclear weapons supposed to save Pakistan if our institutions are falling apart? The army, of course, remains strong. But our parliament, judiciary and media are becoming weaker by the day.

It is a matter of shame that four military dictators ruled Pakistan for more than 32 years. Civilian prime ministers — 29 of them — have ruled the country for 43 years. No elected prime minister has completed a full five-year term. Three different constitutions of Pakistan were abrogated or suspended five times in the 75 years since the country achieved statehood.

True, Pakistan – once routinely referred to as a garrison state – has not seen a military intervention since 2007. Yet democracy is still very weak. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently described Pakistan as a hybrid regime — a country that doesn’t qualify as a proper democracy even if it has some democratic aspects. It’s not a secret that the generals effectively installed Imran Khan as prime minister with a rigged election in 2018.

When Pakistan became ungovernable under Khan, the army decided to stay neutral. Earlier this year, Khan created a crisis by dissolving the national assembly to save his government — but he was ultimately ousted by a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He then proceeded to blame the United States for his downfall. He started attacking the neutrality of the military leadership and declared them to be traitors. He tried to return to power by blackmailing the same generals who once made him prime minister. His trick didn’t work.

His anti-Americanism and economic crises did help him to regain a degree of popularity. Now, his political opponents are trying to disqualify him from another term with allegations of corruption and receiving prohibited funds. Back in 2017, the Supreme Court made Khan’s victory possible by disqualifying previous prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The current government now wants to do the same. Even if it is justified, the disqualification of another popular leader will create yet more instability.

The Pakistani judiciary does not enjoy a good reputation. The World Justice Project, a group that tracks legal systems around the world, ranks Pakistan 130 of 139 countries on the rule of law. A historical pattern of collaboration between dictators and judges has weakened democracy. Pakistani judges need to stop getting involved in politics. On one side, Khan is challenging the “neutrality” of the army, and on the other the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is pushing the courts to disqualify Khan. Both the government and opposition are fighting with state institutions.

Media freedom is another casualty of the political war among power players. Pakistan is ranked 157 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index of 2022. Pakistan fell 18 points in the ranking since 2018, when Khan took power. TV channels were blocked. Journalists were attacked, arrested and banned.

Media freedom is under threat even now that Khan has left power. When my colleagues Asad Toor and Absar Alam were attacked last year, then-opposition leader Sharif visited them and expressed his commitment for media freedom. Now, he is prime minister, and his government has banned ARY, a pro-Khan TV channel. The owner and anchors of that channel are facing sedition charges for allegedly airing criticisms of the army.

When I was facing sedition allegations last year, ARY commentators wanted to see me behind bars. One of its anchors declared me an enemy of Pakistan just because I made a harsh speech against those who had attacked one of my journalist colleagues. Yet, I never left the country. I chose to stay. My former critics are now facing similar allegations. I don’t support silencing them.

Freedom of the press is an essential pillar of democracy. It is hard to imagine any form of democracy that does not allow for wide-ranging discussion of social and political problems. Last year, I was banned from the air for nine months without an order from any court. A few days ago, yet another anchor, Imran Riaz, was taken off the air by his channel without any charges being filed. These kinds of tactics will not only weaken the media as an institution but ultimately turn Pakistani democracy into a joke.

I know I might face a lot of criticism from people in positions of power for taking the side of those who were not nice to me. But I don’t think that revenge is a solution to our problems. I think that Khan should say that supporting a disqualification of Sharif was his mistake. Sharif should also oppose the disqualification of Khan.

President Arif Alvi belongs to the biggest opposition party, which is led by Khan. Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who made Pakistan a nuclear power in 1998. Can these two power players start a dialogue with all political stakeholders to strengthen democratic institutions? The best way forward is the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. Only they can save the institutions from crumbling.

Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.

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