Democracy Lab

In Pakistan, Slow and Steady Just Might Win the Race

Yes, terrorism is a problem. But Pakistan is making remarkable headway in its transition to democracy.

Amid the suicide attacks, the enforced disappearances, and the sectarian violence, there is another story unfolding in Pakistan -- one based on a slow but steady transition to democracy that doesn't entail the violent political upheavals rocking the Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Yet Pakistan's "long march" to democracy may well hold important lessons for countries struggling to make a similar shift from a deep-rooted history of dictatorship to democracy. While it's true that terrorism continues to threaten the progress Pakistan has made toward institutionalizing democratic practices, cooperation on the political front dominates relations between the main political parties. The result is an unprecedented era of political reconciliation and democratic consolidation for the first time in decades.

Pakistan has struggled to establish a fully functioning democracy since its inception in 1947, with successive military dictatorships intervening to quash prodemocracy forces and weaken democratic institutions. 34 of Pakistan's 66 years have been under military rule. In May 2006, however, the country's two biggest political parties and long-time bitter rivals united forces for the first time against military dictatorship. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, both in exile at the time, signed the Charter of Democracy. The Charter bound their two parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to "play by the rules" and implement key reforms to strengthen democratic practices regardless of which party won the next election. The agreement marked a decisive turning point, ushering in a new spirit of cooperation based on the mutual recognition that political unity was the only way to end dictatorship and restore democracy.

The Charter was ignored by western diplomats in Islamabad and many western governments, especially the United States, which continued to funnel billions of dollars to General Pervez Musharraf's military regime. They failed to spot the crucial significance of the extraordinary agreement between Pakistan's most important political parties, which established a peaceful mechanism for establishing a sustainable transition to a stable government. The Charter appears even more remarkable when viewed against the current gridlock between congressional Republicans and Democrats in the United States. In Pakistan, at least, the Charter showed that two competitive parties were willing to put the public interest ahead of their own.

One western diplomat assured me that the Charter "wasn't worth the paper it was written on." But both the PPP and the PML-N have remained committed to the Charter's democratic principles despite major setbacks, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto just before the scheduled 2008 election. Indeed, by voting to oust President Musharraf soon after the parliamentary elections, the newly elected provincial assemblies, dominated by the PPP and PML-N, unleashed a "democratic revolution" and reclaimed their legislative authority without a drop of bloodshed.

The September 2008 election of the PPP's Asif Ali Zardari as president offered further evidence that the PML-N was prepared to accept the PPP parliamentary election victory despite their growing political differences and Sharif's decision to leave the new coalition government just months after it was formed. In a country where the intelligence agencies routinely manipulate political parties with bribes, threats, and coups d'états, Zardari's election was a clear sign of Sharif's commitment to turn a historic corner and embrace the democratic process, even if it meant a five-year stint in opposition after eight years in exile.

In 2009, with a democratically elected parliament and president in office, lawmakers established a special parliamentary committee, consisting of representatives of all the parties in the parliament, to review the constitutional distortions imposed by the country's four dictators and to propose reforms based on the Charter of Democracy. The year-long laborious effort yielded a political consensus that restored the constitution to the principles of parliamentary democracy on which the country was founded.

The Eighteenth Amendment, passed in April 2010, enabled President Zardari to restore to the prime minister and parliament the constitutional authority that Musharraf had seized as president, enabling him to maintain control of the elected government and turn the country from a parliamentary republic into a semi-presidential state. The Eighteenth Amendment returned the presidency to a largely ceremonial role while restoring the prime minister and parliament's authority to appoint heads of the armed forces, dissolve parliament, and dismiss an elected government. The amendment also stifles any future undemocratic attempt to overthrow an elected government by making it an act of treason. It also includes a bipartisan process for appointing the chief election commissioner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the head of the anti-corruption authority, and so on. In a country where, for half its history, parliament was forcefully held subservient to the military, the unanimous vote by political parties in support of the Eighteenth Amendment was an extraordinary achievement.

More recent actions appear to confirm the sustainability of the continuing transition to democracy. The 2013 parliamentary elections saw an elected party complete its five-year mandate for the first time and not only pass power peacefully to another party, but also announce its intention to act as a "constructive" opposition. Prime Minister Sharif's appointment of a Baloch party leader as chief minister of the province of Balochistan, despite internal pressure to appoint someone from his own party, suggests that Sharif recognizes the need for political compromise and cooperation.

The transition hasn't been completely smooth. Bumps in the road, like the friction between the government and a hyper-active chief justice, for example, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The court's interference in the schedule of the recent presidential elections also resulted in the resignation of a widely respected chief election commissioner just months after his appointment, as well as a boycott of that election by the PPP and its key party allies. This tug-of-war can, perhaps, be seen in a somewhat positive light as institutions struggle to find their legitimate space in the new democratic order rather than seek the military solutions of the past. The fact the military didn't intervene to resolve any of these stand-offs is significant in a country where, historically, the military, supported by many in the judiciary, has used such clashes to seize power.

The recent announcement by the chief of the army that he will step down when his term expires next month is another significant, if small, sign that the balance of civil-military relations is starting to shift. Under General Kayani's rule, the army made few or no attempts to interfere in many spheres under control of the civilians, like the economy and the constitution. But on foreign and defense policy, while space for civilians has increased slightly, the army still wields a veto. Kayani, generally seen as a democrat, has publicly advised his successor to continue supporting the democratic process. This will depend, in part, on who takes his place and the capacity of the civilian government to maintain good relations with the military while continuing to press for positive change.

The country still faces daunting challenges from terrorism, sectarianism, ethnic unrest, regional disputes, and poverty. Power struggles between the central government and the provinces threaten decentralization. There are troubling signs that Prime Minister Sharif's commitment to parliamentary supremacy may be more rhetoric than reality now that he's in office. He rarely appears at sessions of parliament, and his ministers have yet to present any major pieces of legislation for debate. Perhaps most troubling is the government's lack of a coherent policy on terrorism which continues to take innocent lives throughout the country.

Nonetheless, Pakistan is now better equipped than ever to confront the future armed with a stronger democratic framework that provides a means of resolving political differences. The ongoing peaceful transition to democracy is a stark contrast to the violent upheavals devastating other countries struggling to throw off dictatorships. The unity the PPP and PML-N demonstrated in the Charter of Democracy was profoundly significant and set a democratic tone which showed that strong political parties and political leadership are vital for a peaceful, stable, and sustainable transition from dictatorship to democracy.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Unconstant Gardener

How President Obama could have kept friends as friends and nipped the NSA fallout in the bud.

Newcomers to international relations may be forgiven for believing that allied resentment at the United States is a constant in American foreign policy. Believe it or not, there was a time when Washington managed to keep its allies pretty happy -- even in the wake of major foreign policy shifts. In retrospect, the 20-odd years between George Shultz becoming Ronald Reagan's secretary of state and George W. Bush becoming president were they heyday of "gardening." Shultz coined this term in his memoirs to refer to the need to consult and listen to allies on a regular basis. That way, even if the United States decided on policies at variance with their allies, at least those countries would feel in the loop.

George W. Bush was not a very good gardener, outside of his constant watering of Tony Blair. Indeed, he was so historically bad at it that, in 2008, for the first time ever, more Americans thought that restoring America's standing in the world was a higher priority than protecting jobs at home. When Barack Obama ran for president, he stressed the need to restore America's standing -- and less than a year into office, declared that mission accomplished.

For the past month, however, we've learned something important about President Obama: based on the global pique spawned by Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, among other things, he's just as bad a gardener as George W. Bush.

Pick a region of the globe and in all likelihood America's allies located there have a valid case for being cheesed off at Washington. In the Pacific Rim, the fury is directed at the terrifically stupid government shutdown/debt-ceiling fight from last month. Countries there who hold massive sums of U.S. government debt were not keen on Congress's flirtation with defaulting on U.S. debt. Tea Party bloody-mindedness is not exactly Obama's fault, but his decision to cancel his trip to the region to deal with the crisis is on him. The contrast between Obama's no-show and Chinese premier Xi Jinping's heralded tour of Southeast Asian capitals did not go unnoticed by foreign affairs observers.

In the Middle East, longstanding U.S. allies are furious with Washington for what they see as its volte-face on longstanding adversaries. First, the Obama administration backs down from a military confrontation with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Then Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to praise the Assad regime for complying with their chemical weapons agreement in "record time." Meanwhile, the administration started to reciprocate Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's outreach efforts -- rattling both Israeli and Saudi foreign policy circles. There's little new with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's irritation with the Obama administration. And the Saudi pique has been long-simmering -- but now it's gone public, however, which is surprising.

Finally, there is Europe, home to America's longest and strongest allies. Oddly, they might be the most upset with President Obama. Yes, these countries are also annoyed with Washington's debt ceiling shenanigans and felt out of the loop on the dramatic reversal of course on Syria. But revelations that the NSA had bugged German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone have kicked tensions up a notch. As Merkel's former defense minister explained recently, "we are at the level that European leaders don't only lose faith in a partner, but also their face."

This lack of warmth between Obama and allied leaders is nothing new. Indeed, five months ago the New York Times was reporting that, "For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years.... Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him."

Rather, what's striking is the way in which a little bit of gardening might have smoothed some of these issues. Sure, Saudi Arabia was never going to like any warming of U.S. relations with Iran, and no one was jumping for joy over the debt ceiling deadlock. That said, keeping the Saudis firmly in the loop on the evolution of U.S. policy towards Iran, Syria, and Egypt might have assuaged some anxieties in Riyadh. And the moment that Snowden fled the country, the White House should have crafted a damage control strategy with affected allies -- just as it did when Wikileaks released a trove of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010. But at least at the public level, it seems like there's been almost no pruning and tending.

Why has the Obama administration been so bad at gardening? The obvious response would be to blame the president's aloof demeanor and increasing disdain for personal politicking. That answer is a bit too pat, however. Gardening isn't just a presidential activity -- it encompasses the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the secretary of state to the national security advisor to the Pentagon. But in order to consult properly with allies, each of these bureaucracies needs to be familiar with exactly what U.S. intentions are in a particular situation.

The reason that consulting with allies has gone so badly is that it's far from clear that the White House consults all that much with the rest of the executive branch. On Syria, for example, Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria took his own staff by surprise -- not to mention Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. According to the New York Times, the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East came from a policy review conducted by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and "a tight group that included no one outside the White House." Obama and his staff insist that the White House didn't know the extent of NSA surveillance on foreign leaders, which not only beggars belief but begs the question -- maybe it would have been good to ask? As Dana Milbank snarked, "For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration."

Irritating allies is an occupational hazard of being a superpower. And there are times when policy shifts or espionage is warranted. The point of gardening is to make sure that these irritations don't become full-grown thorns. But in order for the United States to be on the same page with its allies, the White House needs to make sure that it's on the same page with the rest of the executive branch. Maybe, before the Obama administration tries to garden abroad, it should try some gardening at home first.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images