True democracy in Pakistan can prevent extremism

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What turns middle-class young people from Pakistan, like Faisal Shahzad, toward militant extremism? It’s important to note that Shahzad spent his youth in Pakistan during the military rule of hard-line General Zia al-Huq, who instituted a school curriculum that taught intolerance towards religions other than Islam and promoted militancy. And it isn’t just military dictatorships that have bred intolerance. According to Sherry Rehman, the former Information Minister, rampant conspiracy theories and unchecked hate speech against Americans in the Pakistan media may also be playing a part in radicalizing some of the country’s youth.

Pakistan’s military has been historically reluctant to act against militant groups like Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (“TTP”), which originally claimed responsibility for the attempt, until a civilian government came to power. Since President Asif Ali Zardari took power, the public and the government have been able to press the military into successful operations against these groups. That is why it is so critical for the United States to focus not just on aiding Pakistan’s military but on strengthening Pakistan’s democratic institutions by encouraging responsible participation by all constituents, including the media, opposition and judiciary. That is what the elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari has been trying to achieve, despite severe and irresponsible pressure against such moves by its opponents in those same groups—pressure which arguably supports extremism.

Some in the established opposition parties, judiciary and media would rather cling to power and prestige through the promotion of anti-American rhetoric at the expense of Pakistan’s own security. To the contrary, President Zardari is willing to sacrifice power to bolster democracy and fight against extremism.

In a historic moment, unprecedented in the history of Pakistan, on April 19, Pakistan’s president signed into law sweeping constitutional reforms that will strip him of many of his powers. It was a bold move aimed at restoring a healthy balance of power and thus strengthen the voice of the people through the elected National Assembly.

The 18th Amendment to the Pakistani constitution abolishes the authority of the president to dissolve the National Assembly and to dismiss a prime minister and/or restore the authority of a prime minister. It also lifts the ban against a two-term prime minister from standing for a third term, clearing the way for opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to serve as prime minister once again. The government and President Zardari believe this will make it more difficult for military chiefs to put pressure on the president to oust those that they oppose, which was the case during two civilian governments led by President Zardari’s late wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

In turn, the 18th Amendment also strips the president of the power to appoint military chiefs, transferring that power instead to the prime minister, in consultation with the legislature. Importantly, the legislation also decentralizes the Pakistani government, granting more autonomy to the provinces, and therefore, the people. It further gives the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan a new name, “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” as a way of representing its dominant ethnic make-up, which is Pashtun.

Why would a president voluntarily give up power? “It is my hope that the doors of dictatorship are closed forever,” Zardari said after signing the 18th amendment to Pakistan’s 1973 parliamentary constitution, according to Pakistan’s Dawn. It was under the dictatorships of General Zia al-Huq and General Pervez Musharraf when such militant groups as TTP first developed.

But are the doors to military dictatorship closed tightly enough? Najam Sethi, one of Pakistan’s most respected commentators called the bill a “breakthrough” but warned it would not necessarily keep the military out of politics.

“When all power was with the prime minister as in 1977 and 1999 the military [still] carried out a coup. Everything will depend on whether politicians can lead and run country well. Politicians need to show responsibility in opposition and in government because the military is always on standby to take over when they don’t,” he was quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph.

Yet it is not just politicians who must show responsibility in opposition in order to foreclose a pretense for a military takeover. As Tarek Fatah, a Canadian activist noted in the Daily Times, more than the army, “it is the judiciary, appointed to their privileged positions by past military dictators, which seems to be working against the current government,” some of whom suggest the constitutional changes brought by the 18th Amendment bill will be struck down by the courts. According to the press, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, has said that parliament has the sole authority to amend the constitution and that the Court must obey the constitution and not try to overturn it

President Zardari has fulfilled the promise he made to the people of Pakistan last March. With greater power being shifted to the Pakistani people should come greater stability and security, if the judiciary, opposition parties and the media would end the political maneuvering, accept the roles they were elected or appointed to carry out, and work together to secure Pakistan’s economic and political future.

Dr. Majjida Ahmed is the Chief of Medical Staff at Whittier Hospital Medical center, and is in Private Practice in Whittier, California. She is a founding member of Americans for Democracy & Justice in Pakistan, an organization dedicated to educating the media, political leaders and the public about the importance of supporting democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan.