Pakistan’s potential for a strong democracy could be in jeopardy
When Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in an off-the-record briefing with journalists in March 2018, was quoted as saying that the 18th Amendment was “more dangerous than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Six-Points political agenda, except the veteran politicians of the 60s,” none in the Islamic Republic understood what the Rawalpindi GHQ chief meant.
The Six-Points was deemed a threat to national security and unity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan by the Hawks of Rawalpindi GHQ. The Hawks believed that when the Awami League in a landslide victory in 1970 elections won an overwhelming majority, both in provincial assembly as well as in national assembly.
Hawks understood regional parties which won in three other provinces of Balochistan, Sindh, and North-East Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) also would be upbeat to demand greater autonomy. The implementation of the Six-Points would be fuel in fire to the simmering independence movement in Balochistan, a princely state forcibly occupied in March 1948.
What is the 18th amendment?
After an unceremonious exit of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, Pakistan’s new civilian government and opposition parties were united in creating several hurdles for the military to seize power again.
During his iron-fisted reign, Musharraf toppled an elected government, dismissed judges, suspended the constitution, and imposed emergency rule to consolidate his power.
In 2010, President Asif Ali Zardari enacted sweeping constitutional reforms that undid provisions that military dictators had introduced to tighten their grip on power and legitimize their coups.
Under the 18th amendment, the president no longer had the authority to dissolve parliament and impose an emergency rule on his own. The courts no longer had jurisdiction to validate suspensions of the constitution and powers were transferred from the presidency to a prime minister and their cabinet. The amendment also transferred power from the centre to the provinces, restored parliamentary democracy, and closed off paths to generals overturning the civilian rule.
Now, a decade on from that landmark move, there are fears that the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is backed by the military, is seeking to roll back the changes, which are widely seen as the bulwark of the democratization process.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has called for a review to “fix” what it perceives as flaws in the 18th amendment, including restoring federal authority over legislation and finances.
Ian Bremer recently wrote in Time magazine: “Army leaders equate the new powers granted to provinces with the ‘Six-Point’ movement, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, a stinging blow for Pakistan’s military.”
Opposition politicians have accused the powerful military of manipulating the 2018 elections to help the PTI win. The opposition parties also condemned Imran Khan’s political catchphrase “Naya Pakistan.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak which gripped Pakistan, it has immensely delayed the politics of “quick fix” of the 18th amendment.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, argued that reining in the amendment would “amount to a demoralizing defeat for the forces of democracy in a nation where such forces have long struggled to secure a sustained foothold.
“The 18th amendment has long endured like a brave and bold achievement that showcases the very real potential for strong democracy in Pakistan.”
Fortunately, the Naya Pakistan government does not have a two-third majority in both the national assembly and senate that it would take to repeal or amend the 18th amendment.
As Ian Bremer writes, the Pakistani army has long had concerns over the 18th amendment.
So it did not surprise that Khan’s government, which relies on the army’s support to remain in power, has been pushing to make revisions to the law.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter @saleemsamad.