Posted by: ourvoicestogether | January 14, 2008

Pakistan’s Democracy Quandary

As it gets harder to understand the real motives and  the role players involved in the rampant onslaught of suicide bombings and terrorism in Pakistan, it makes one wonder if its even worth a try to give democracy a chance and trust that the military will stay away from politics for long.

Even the most gullible and the diehard breed of supporters are now questioning and showing skepticism about Pakistan’s dwindling fortunes. It appears that although the country is used to historical hiccups,yet, this current phase of ‘strenuous’ trickery mightslip that nation of 170 million folks to newer and‘dead-ended’ depths.

No one seems to care about nation building or the shocks the system has suffered from vis-à-vis international goodwill and its involvement in instigating global religious fanaticism. Pakistan’s decline is too obvious to miss, too bitter to swallow and too serious to ignore for the sake of world peace and stability.

I recently came across an interesting piece by Isaac Kfir, titled ‘Democracy and Talibanization in Pakistan’. Written just after the imposition of emergency rule back in November last year, the writer has carefully analyzed the troubled nations lack of options in dealing with the fundamentalists and questions the relevance of ‘the issues of democracy and democratization’ to Pakistan.

It’s great to talk about democracy, it’s even better if the world believes that a country with all the ‘virtues and vices’ of a ‘failed state’ is still good enough for this beautiful concept that has gained approval of all and sundry so much so that even despots like the Pakistani president like to be called true democrats and speak highly of their democratic ‘achievements’!

Having a first hand experience and having observed Pakistan’s decline, I personally consider Kfir’s article to be momentously significant. Plagued as it is by disasters of domestic anarchy and aggression, it appears that between the military rule and the Islamists, the country doesn’t really have much else to play around with.

Kfir writes:

While international attention focuses on the manhandling of protesting lawyers, jailed Supreme Court justices and fickle politicians, the Taliban and other Islamists expand their influence, sowing misery and fear. Across Pakistan’s tribal belt, music stores and barbershops have closed and attacks against men without beards and unaccompanied women have increased. In one area, Islamists have warned women that their marriages will be annulled unless their husbands grow beards.

While it is indeed true that, as things stand today, Pakistan does have a ‘civilian’ president, an interim prime minister and of course parliamentary elections that are due to be held in the next few weeks, it would seem that democracy is not only prevalent but the future of the system is also bright. However, read between the lines and check out the ground realities and you’ll feel that something is not right with the political conditions.

Considering that at least since the past one year, the country has been in a constant situation of influx and stress, ruled by an elite unbound by constitutional restraints, where the otherwise loudly declared commitment to protect and promote the legitimate interests of the governed have been trampled over on several occasions, Pakistan has only seen constant crisis and turmoil.

Starting from the dismissal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court last March that triggered off a wave of public resentment, down to the assassination of a popular political leader a few weeks ago, it’s been a roller coaster ride for Pakistan. Suicide bombings have been the order of the day with tensions mounting rapidly with respect to those demanding implementation of the outdated ethos of the Sharia, mullahs calling for death to the United States and Israel, killing thousands of innocent souls, kidnapping and, on occasions, beheading law enforcement personnel and plunging the country into a quagmire of vociferous horror.

Of course, added to all the above, Pakistan is faced with onerous socio-economic, political and infrastructural problems coupled with a serious crisis of leadership. Historical facts amply demonstrate that even though there have been times of democratic rule, the military has always made a comeback and held the reigns of power for long periods of time.

More than once, the Pakistan army has intervened in the politics of the country. Institutions have never been allowed to prosper. Thanks to the absence of a healthy and organized public opinion, implying a minimum political culture, along with civilian leaders’ loss of popularity among the people, the zeal of the military has been sharpened time and again to overthrow the corrupt and notorious civilian administrations.

The men in uniform have intervened because other elites have been missing in action, and while they have proven themselves to be impotent and indifferent, the army has improvised and expanded its role to carry the burden created by a modernization crisis.

Apart from that, nationalism has provided the army with a civic religion and an overriding set of values. The leadership believes that they have a unique role to play as guardians of the national territory and ultimate repositories and custodians of national values. Where nationalism has gripped the masses, the armed forces have become a visible symbol and the pledge of nationhood and independence.

Moreover, and strangely, the military has intervened in defense of popular democracy, since democracy stands on the celebrated maxim: “The voice of people is the voice of God’. Thus, Zia-ul-Haq overthrew an elected government in the 70s, since he succeeded in mustering a small semblance of popular support.

That particular intervention spoiled Pakistan’s chances of ever transitioning to a true democracy since from then onwards the path was laid wider open for the military to intervene and supercede the civilian government altogether on the plea that the armed forces can claim to be the lawful government.

Where does this all lead to?

By the looks of it, it appears that a group or a faction inside the Pakistani government machinery has turned into an uncontrollable juggernaut, a de facto, faceless, ‘holier than thou’ setup that gets sickened by the talk of democracy, freedom, rights and liberty that results, obviously, in a much secular dynamics with little or no provision of fanaticism to be encouraged and thrive. It could be the intelligence agencies, the military itself, perhaps a faction within the military, Musharraf’s confidants, anyone, any ‘association’ of individuals that feels threatened when it sees power slipping out of their hands and not being able to control the destiny of the nation.

Whatever the case may be democracy seems to be a distant reality. There are not many possibilities to explore and work on. The constitution is in shambles; there is an impotent, ‘government-controlled’ judiciary and a sheer absence of checks and balances.

I am not trying to discount the idea of an actual, real, democratic government ever coming into existence in Pakistan. I am only suggesting that, may be, the chemistry of the Pakistani nation does not match with democracy. Therefore, it may be wastage of time and energy to push for a ‘democratic settlement’ under the given set of circumstances. This never-ending debate and tussle to create a setup based on democratic principles is probably reducing the importance of the more integral issues, the biggest amongst them being the issue of terrorism.

It is unrealistic to believe also that the ‘military-mullah bond’ will ever be broken. Pakistan is destined to remain a fundamentalist hotspot. The army has protected the mullahs before and will more than likely continue to supply all help and paraphernalia to the Islamists.

Yes, agreed, that Pakistan needs democracy but, to my mind, at this time, there are just about of couple things that can happen.

One, Musharraf continues to rule with a strong hand and doing everything and anything to prolong his rule. This would mean that the military keeps supporting him, as is apparently the case now.

Also, if the February 18 elections are allowed to go ahead, he will appoint a weak candidate to be the prime minister. As it is, constitutionally, the office of the prime minister is nothing but a rubber stamp.

One of the theories going around is that Musharraf might have got rid of Benazir Bhutto because he was afraid of an overwhelming and imposing character assuming the office of the prime minister and thereby becoming a threat to him. This could be an absolutely absurd assumption but Pakistan is always a bagful of surprises!

The other possibility is the army listening to the ‘voice of people’, paying attention to the anti-Musharraf rhetoric and agitation and finally deciding to step in. Once again Islam, nationalism, cleansing of the system, etc., will hit the headlines.

Going by the trends and the public outrage against the government coupled with Musharraf’s unpopularity, it will probably not be too shocking to digest the news of a military takeover. Pakistan is on the edge for sure and it appears that those calling the shots in the government are unable to decipher the situation.

Either way, the circumstances will stay ideal for the fundamentalists. As Kfir says:

ultimately, if things continue along this path, the issues of democracy and democratization’ will become moot, as only one system and one voice is permitted under the Taliban: Islam and the mullahs.

This exaggeratedly menacing environment does not auger well for the world community. Between now and the elections day, it’ll be nothing but interesting to observe as to how much damage the mullahs will carry out and how the evolving matters are dealt with.

Whatever is happening in Pakistan is important for the future of humanity as a whole. Being the center of Islamic militancy, the country’s crisis situation must come to halt sooner rather than later.

There are, unfortunately, no ideal solutions. Democracy may have been a possible part of the solution but what matters most for now is to calm down the charged up atmosphere and stop the march of the Talibans, the al-Qaedas, and the likes. This violence and aggression must come to an end now. If that does not happen, any chances of peace and reconciliation may have little or no opportunity to succeed.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan



  1. I have said publicly more times than I care to remember that extremists on both sides in this post-9/11 world are crowding out the moderate, pro-democratic middle. The point is not that “violence and aggression must come to an end now,” which implies a dangerous willingness to give in to extremism from conservatives (i.e., the Pakistani Army). What any society under attack from conservative and radical extremists needs is to strengthen the moderate, reasonable, middle. But…no need to tell Pakistan that: the Pakistani judiciary has already “walked the talk” and set an example of patriotism and courage that should inspire us all. We Westerners have always thought democracy was our vision to the world; maybe it is time for us to learn from Pakistan.

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