PAKISTAN: ‘Democratic forces have become weak due to prolonged military regimes’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Peter Jacob, the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, a civil society organisation (CSO) engaging in research and advocacy on human rights, the democratic development and social justice. He has been an activist, researcher and freelance journalist for over 30 years.

In Pakistan’s July 2018 elections, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party led by Imran Khan, emerged as the largest party in parliament, breaking the decades-long dominance of the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The election was overshadowed by hundreds of political arrests, a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the powerful military covertly backed Imran Khan.

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Pakistan against those standards?

Just as anywhere else, a functioning democracy should have democratic norms, including constitutions and traditions, democratic institutions, including parliament and an opposition, basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and a robust civil society that advocates for exercising these freedoms. Pakistan is struggling to become an inclusive and vibrant democracy after transitioning from a military-led government, even though direct military rule ended 10 years ago.

Pakistan faces an inherent challenge on account of having a constitution that provides for both a theocracy and a democracy, or a mix of religion and politics, posing specific risks to the rights of religious minorities.

How would you assess the conduct of the July 2018 elections? To what extent do you feel they were free and fair? What were the key challenges encountered and lessons learned?

The elections were held at a time when the previous government was facing trials on corruption and other charges, so there was a lot of speculation and allegations of gerrymandering. The government and the opposition have agreed to form a parliamentary commission to probe into these allegations. Whatever the outcome, one expects that it will help bring maturity and stability into the politics and governance of the country.

Until recently Pakistan has faced enormous challenges such as terrorism and lawlessness, low economic performance and an expanding population. It is understandable that the government system is weak and recovery is expected to be incremental. Additionally, the electoral system is not strong enough to have full transparency of the electoral process.

Nevertheless, one can say that there was wide participation by citizens in the recent elections and therefore the continuation of the democratic process presents hopes for building a fuller democracy. The decision of the opposition to become part of parliament has at least ensured that there isn’t a political crisis in the immediate post-election phase.

How did conditions for civil society change in the run-up to the elections?

A section of government has been always sceptical of CSOs; therefore, action against both international and domestic CSOs started back in 2015, largely through registration laws that were used to curtail their operations or their role in the social and public spheres. A smear campaign has also been going on, particularly against rights-based groups, which has pushed them to justify and maintain their own existence. CSOs also became victims of terrorism, and even though terrorist attacks have gradually decreased since 2015, a recovery from that situation has not come about. Therefore, the July 2018 elections did not do much to change the conditions for the civil society for the better.

To what extent was civil society able to mobilise around the elections?

Owing to these existential threats, during the recent elections, there were few organisations that could participate or even prepare to mobilise opinion around the elections.

However, due to popular human rights campaigns in the past and present, all political parties were obliged to incorporate a section on human rights in their election manifestos, which provides space for CSOs engagement in the future.

What are your key hopes and fears for the new administration that has come to power following the elections, and what should its priorities be?

The new government presents hope as it has come up with a rather holistic version of a development agenda, so besides a capitalist or neoliberal agenda they have laid an emphasis on environmental conservation, austerity and fighting corruption. Pakistanis, including the opposition, want this agenda to succeed as much as the government does. But Imran Khan has assumed power for the first time at the federal level and is therefore prone to mistakes. The biggest fear is that this team might land themselves in a trouble politically or take on a challenge bigger than they can handle. For example, the government made high claims about reducing its dependence on foreign lending yet it was obliged to approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. This indicates some miscalculations or poor assessment of the challenges in the economy and the way forward.        

Some delicate issues may serve as on-the-job training for the government. For instance if the government can handle religious extremism where they have shown some tendency to perform - as in the well-known case of Asia Bibi, a victim of blasphemy laws - there is a pretty good chance that they will take the country forward.

Besides focusing on economic challenges, the government should also pay attention to the quality of education and cultural rights. At the moment, public education is mere indoctrination, and cultural and creative expressions are suffocated by censorship of various kinds, so they need to be unshackled.

Are there other key challenges for civil society’s fundamental rights and democratic freedoms in Pakistan?

The country is still passing through multiple transitions, such as in its external relations and the economy, which for too long have depended on US military aid and the World Bank’s financial assistance. The country needs to free itself economically and politically. Democratic forces were weakened by prolonged military regimes. The government is inclined to learn from the Chinese model, which is not a democratic one.

The media is facing curbs on its freedoms and CSOs are facing severe restrictions including a clampdown on receiving foreign funding, although CSOs are fighting back. Given its tradition of struggle against autocratic regimes, civil society might still make a comeback; however, there is currently a lot of confusion as to how civil society space will be reclaimed. But since Pakistan is setting up human rights institutions for women’s, children’s and human rights more generally, these institutions may help to disseminate a stronger discourse and bring attention to fundamental standards of freedoms and rights.

What support does Pakistani civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

Human rights are all about internationalism and multilateralism, and countries must give and receive support from international actors, including international civil society, in their struggle for freedoms, which we strongly believe are interrelated. I would therefore like to encourage the international community and international CSOs to visit Pakistan, take stock of the ongoing developments and engage with the Pakistani people as well as the government.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with the Centre for Social Justice on Pakistan through their website