Mian Nawaz Sharif gave proof, if any was needed, that he is not ideologically committed to democracy by striking at the root of two of its dearly held principles at the same time. Meanwhile, the fact that the apparent reason for tearing them down was also a democratic principle, showed that democracy is not a universal truth. On the one hand, the principle that trials must be held in open court was sacrificed, and the presiding officers of courts martial were permitted, through an amending ordinance, to the Army Act, to restrict access to trials. On the other, the principle of ballot secrecy has been sacrificed in the Senate election. Though the main difficulty seems to have been getting the majority needed to pass the needed constitutional amendment, it should not escape notice that Mian Nawaz has sacrificed the principle.

As for Mian Nawaz, it should be noted that he is the rule, not an exception, in being committed to democracy only insofar as it puts him into office. The politician committed to democracy even if it does not lead him into office is so rare as to be almost invisible, and politicians work with the system as it is, while reformers try to change it to conform to some ideal they have. Politicians only press for reform if they feel that the system as it is does not allow them to do what they want. As Winston Churchill, a typical and consummate politician, once said, “Democracy is a bad system, but it is better than others.” Mian Nawaz would probably have no use for democracy, if it did not provide him his only entry into power. His lack of commitment to democracy can be seen from the fact that he began his political career as a member of Lt Gen Ghulam Gilani Khan’s Punjab Cabinet under the Zia Martial Law.

The military might be an entry point in politics in Pakistan, but it is not supposed to be in democracy. The handing over of the trials of militants to the military was seen as a vote of no confidence in the judiciary, and a step towards martial law. Now, by permitting presiding officers not just to try militants, but also to determine who can be present in court, there is a throwback to the Star Chamber, which conducted trials in England in the 16th and 17th centuries of offences against the state, and where witnesses were given and recorded in secret. In other words, one of the main purposes of an open trial, of allowing the defendant to confront accusers and other witnesses against him, is defeated. It is worth noting that the Star Chamber, which fell into disuse during the Civil War which saw Charles I executed, was set up at a time of religious crisis, when England was undergoing the convulsions of Puritanism after having converted to Protestantism. It was also seen as a more ‘efficient’ and ‘honest’ court.

The courts martial have been empowered to try militants after the Peshawar massacre. While the revulsion against that massacre may well be justified, the government and the military have used it to have militants tried by closed courts. One important reason for having open courts is to prevent any abuses of the trial process. The safeguards that have been introduced for the defendant are because the right to life and liberty cannot be taken away lightly. However, the government also has a duty to establish law and order, which implies punishing militants severely. Therefore, there seems to be a conflict between militants’ democratic right to an open trial, and the right of society to punish militancy and thus prevent it. Mian Nawaz, or any member of his government, has not expressed any compunctions at this.

That it is not the result of much soul-searching is shown by the ease with which the secret ballot is being jettisoned in Senate elections. The Senate is modelled on the US Senate in representing the federating units, while the National Assembly, like the US House of Representatives, represents the people. US Congress is in turn patterned on the British Parliament, where the House of Commons represents the people, and the House of Lords the Lords. The difficulty in copying the USA was that Pakistan had many more Senators for each unit, so instead of a direct election, the old American system of having the state legislature elect the Senators, was adopted. Because of the large number of Senators, the election had to be by single transferable vote, to ensure that the Senate reflected the provincial assembly electing it. Because provincial assemblies of differing sizes elected the same number of Senators, the number of votes needed to elect a Senator varied from province to province. Then there was the partyless Senate election in 1985, which established a tradition of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa MPAs selling their votes to independent candidates willing to pay.

This was a multiple challenge this time around, because while the mainstream parties are expected to be corrupt, the PTI is not. It rules in KP, and if its MPAs were to make money this way, it would reflect badly on the party. The PML(N) also wanted to stop this, and came up with a solution that is logical only if the struggle to have a secret ballot is ignored. At the time the secret ballot was introduced (as late as 1872 in the UK), opponents did argue that voters should have the courage of their convictions, and should be ready to be public about their choice, but proponents of the reform pointed to the many consequent evils, mainly of coercion. Even now, with a purportedly secret ballot, there are always reports of coercion in general elections. The motive for coercion now is corruption, another electoral illegality. It seems that Mian Nawaz does not view MPAs as independent electors, but as the repositories of the ballots they received. That would apply where party tickets determined the result, but in the Pakistani context, the influence of the ticket varies from constituency to constituency. More significant is the electoral machine the candidate has. It might be reprehensible for an MPA to sell his vote, but in a system where he must finance his next campaign, it is perhaps inevitable. Thus one principle, electoral honesty, can only be defended by abandoning another, ballot secrecy.

It might be seen as logical that democracy would not come under strain in its homeland, as at its periphery. That might serve to highlight the fact that it is not just imperfect, but also an alien import. Democracy does not just imply a governing system, but also the dominance of capitalism. That would not be strange, had not this been in conflict with the aspirations of the people, and if they did not have an alternative: that of Islam.