TO continue to call Pakistan a functioning democracy is farcical given the politicians’ lack of control on matters they have the constitutional mandate to decide on. Though nothing new, it is tragic given the sigh of relief taken in 2013 after the first democratic transition of government. Thereafter, we saw the dismissal and disqualification of several elected politicians; first Nawaz Sharif and PML-N members, and now the same is being attempted against Imran Khan and PTI members.

Rather than the equal application of the law and justice, the common factor is the targeting of those who fall out of favour with the establishment. If we want to progress with fairness, selective justice cannot be our modus operandi.

Criticism of the security establishment seems to be the red line that elicits severe — and illegal — punishment for those who speak out. Attempts were made to criminalise criticism of the military through an amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code which did not go through. The Peca ordinance was also brought in to further strengthen criminal defamation including that of public officials — but it was struck down by the Islamabad High Court as it was clearly unconstitutional.

There are several cases from the past few years that demonstrate efforts reminiscent of martial law regimes: alleged custodial torture of Shahbaz Gill, attack on Ayaz Amir, arrest of Imran Riaz Khan; and previous attacks on/ abduction of Umar Cheema, Matiullah Jan, Asad Toor, Hamid Mir, Gul Bukhari, etc. South Waziristan MNA Ali Wazir has been in jail without conviction for over a year for criticising policies that do not conclusively tackle militants and that led to dozens in his family being killed.

Selective justice cannot be our modus operandi.

Press freedom has been under attack. The circulation of this paper was restricted in cantonments, channels were relegated to the end of the list, media owner Mir Shakilur Rehman was jailed without conviction, official ads to media groups critical of the government were withheld, and reproving anchors taken off air. The unconstitutional ban on News One and ARY this year is a continuation of this trend.

This must also be a lesson for sections of the media that are happy to be used by anti-democratic forces for short-term gains, but have to escape or go into hiding when they fall out of favour.

Whoever is involved in politics invites criticism that political parties have always been subjected to. If matters of public interest — people’s votes, who is in government, how rights are violated, disappearances, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, media clampdown, etc — point to the involvement of any institution, people are well within their rights to speak out.

Recent social media trends regarding the Balochistan helicopter crash show how the good work of institutions gets diluted because of the establishment’s interference in politics.

To uphold civilian supremacy and ensure democratic governance, political parties need to be on the same page regarding outside interference in politics. A Charter of Democracy was signed between rivals PPP and PML-N for this very purpose, but the rise of Imran Khan’s PTI meant a consistent campaign to villainise the political class, no matter how blatant the propaganda and selective justice were. The shielding of former dictator Pervez Musharraf, guilty of high treason for abrogating the Constitution, is a case in point.

Now that the PTI has also experienced its downfall through the loss of support of establishment-backed coalition partners, it is time for it to salvage its role and uphold civilian supremacy and democracy.

The rules of politics require the drawing of red lines. Political competition must not mean delegitimising political opponents. It must mean that there is a level-playing field for all parties who compete for public support based on their performance, and face the polls when they fail. Instead, what we have seen is the invoking of Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution to disqualify popular political leaders. This paves the way for other parties to come to power. We cannot expect stability, prosperity, development, or progress if this game of musical chairs continues where political parties undermine other parties for short-term gains.

Strong positions that centre on the supremacy of parliament must be adopted by political parties and engagement with the establishment must remain within constitutional bounds. Laws and constitutional amendments brought in by dictators or inherited from the colonial era must be done away with, such as Article 62 and 63, sedition laws, and other legal instruments meant for suppressing people’s democratic rights.

We owe it to the founders of Pakistan, as well as all the brave activists, political leaders and workers who have struggled to uphold the independent voice of the people through emphasis on strong and functional democratic institutions.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2022

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