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The Bhutto-Sharif Charter of Democracy

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 29, 2006

    Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed the Charter of Democracy in London on May 15. This is a politically significant step as it signals the coming together of two important parties that together gained 36.5 per cent of the popular vote and hold 72 seats in the current 342 member National Assembly of Pakistan. All political parties including the MMA have welcomed the Charter. The military government, however, has been critical of the alliance and said in a statement that this is a political gimmick of parties that have failed the people and democracy in Pakistan. Both Bhutto and Sharif have been banned from entering Pakistan and participating in politics. Moreover, the military government had earlier brought about constitutional changes to bar any person from being Prime Minister for more than two terms, which both Bhutto and Sharif have been.

    The Charter of Democracy is ambitious in its ambit. Without taking current realities into consideration, it puts forth the proposal that if elected to power an attempt will be made to remove the 'distortion' introduced into the constitution by General Musharraf. The political parties will take steps to abolish the National Security Council and establish a Defence Cabinet Committee. In fact, the 1973 Constitution provides for a Defence Committee of the Cabinet though the latter has hardly been functionalised. Quite ambitiously the Charter also proposes the formation of a committee to 'cut waste and bloat in the armed forces and security agencies'. It also proposes that the defence budget be placed before parliament for approval, something that has not happened in the 59 years of Pakistan's existence. It proposes to bring military land allotment and cantonment jurisdictions into the purview of the Defence Ministry. To cap it all, the political leaders also wish to put nuclear command and control under the Defence Cabinet Committee.

    It is important to note here that in the past Pakistan's military has not even allowed civilian Prime Ministers to visit the nuclear research centre at Kahuta, a confession that Benazir Bhutto herself has made. The military has played an important role in Pakistan's foreign policy and defence decision-making and has successfully kept the civilian government out of the loop in decisions pertaining to the military. For most of its political history, Pakistan has been under military rule. Even when it was under brief spells of civilian government, politicians had repeatedly succumbed to military pressure.

    In 1971, after the decisive defeat and demoralization of the Pakistan military in the war against India, Zulfiqar Bhutto, wary of the military's penchant for intervening in the country's politics, took the precaution of introducing a constitutional provision that rendered any such intervention a treasonable offence. In addition, Bhutto appointed Zia ul Haq as Army Chief ahead of several more senior officers, thinking that Zia was the least ambitious of the lot. But the subsequent military coup in 1977 underlined the fact that the Army's institutional interests overrode an individual chief's personal ambition. In order to continually retain its prominence in politics, the Pakistan military formulated a troika system in the latter half of the 1980s under which power was shared among the elected Prime Minister, the President, and the Army Chief. Nawaz Sharif made a successful, though short-lived, attempt at restoring the supremacy of the elected government by getting the President's power to dismiss it repealed. This move also provided the Prime Minister the power to appoint the three service chiefs. But Musharraf's 1999 coup overturned this development and reaffirmed the military's central role in politics.

    The Charter signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif is yet to be endorsed by the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD). The ARD consists of parties like the PPP, PML (N), Awami National Party, Pakistan Democratic Front and the Jamhoori Watan Party. The other constituent parties of the ARD are of the opinion that the individual party chiefs were not invited for discussion, though the ARD as a conglomerate was invited. Be that as it may, all the political parties have welcomed the Charter as a first step in the fight against the military dictatorship.

    The Charter is more an expression of intent of the two most popular political parties whose leaders are in exile and who are barred by existing provisions from holding the office of Prime Ministership again. Musharraf, whose continuation in power appears to depend on his equations with the Corps Commanders as well as his continued relevance to the United States, has given enough indications to suggest that Bhutto and Sharif would not be allowed to come back to Pakistan.

    From Ayub's 'basic democracy' to Musharraf's 'sustainable democracy' Pakistan has traversed a long distance in its political evolution as a nation state. It is difficult for real democracy to take root and strengthen itself in Pakistan, given constitutional provisions like Article 58(2b) and the existence of a National Security Council dominated by the military. Yet, the Charter promises significant changes that will establish the primacy of the political parties in governance. Though neither Bhutto nor Sharif have unblemished democratic credentials, the underlying fact remains that in the arena of politics and governance, political parties are the legitimate players, not the General and his military cohorts.