Elections are taking place in Pakistan on July 25, giving us a pause to review the performance of democracy there. The fact that a second successive elected government has been able to complete its term is gratifying. But to find no other reason to celebrate the democracy’s achievements is disappointing.
This disappointment should not spur the argument for a non-democratic government, irrespective of how well it may perform, in place of a democratic one, regardless of how poorly it may function. Pakistan not only deserves to have a democratic system, but is also capable of having one. And it must have one.
Pakistan has as good human resources as any country in South Asia. Its governing institutions, state structures, and civil society are capable of hosting a functioning democracy. Yet the quality of democracy remains poor. Democracy in Pakistan may be living longer, but it is getting weaker.
Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and removed from office by the Supreme Court last July on corruption charges, which many believed to be true. Yet few found the judgement to be legally sound.
Sharif has since accused the military of victimizing him in collaboration with the courts. Several of his influential and electable party members have since been switching over to Imran Khan’s PTI party, and the former prime minister has openly blamed the defections on the hidden hand of the military. He has hit back with innuendoes regarding the intelligence agencies’ support for non-state actors and the latter’s role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack citing in his favor the recently released book The Spy Chronicles, co-authored by former ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani and ex-RAW chief A.S. Dulat.
Politicians as Much to Blame as the Army
There is a growing conversation in Pakistan that the military is tightening its grip on the autonomy of the democratic process and wants an outcome in the election that enables it to retain its dominance. By criticizing the military, Sharif hopes to promote a narrative that he was punished not because of corruption, but for his efforts to uphold the civilian supremacy. And this strategy might also help the electoral prospects of his PML-N party.
The reality is democracy has been hurt not just by the military. Indeed, there is a panoply of power comprising the efficient but ambitious military, Islamic elements, and feudal-dominated politicians. Whether enjoying electoral or non-electoral power, they have all been embedded in Pakistan’s body politic, and contribute both to its instability and stability. Pakistan represents a mélange of their world view, national outlook, and successes and failures.
The performance of democracy in the past five years sums up this conundrum. There have been no major achievements except CPEC. Even in that case, the driving force was China more than Pakistan; and in Pakistan, the military is as much its stakeholder as the civilians.
It is certainly true that the energy shortage and other internal security problems are no longer crises. But there was also no tax reform, privatization, or restructuring of state-owned enterprises reeking of corruption. There was no serious effort to fight religious extremism or improve social services, while political institutions remained vulnerable to corruption and dynastic politics.
The economy has been growing, but faces risks from structural weaknesses and mounting debt burden. Pakistan’s external debt and liability now stands at nearly $91 billion, including $44 billion added only in the last five years, a major chunk of which has been spent on repayment of outstanding obligations. There is a crisis in the making in case the economy’s growth trajectory is not achieved and CPEC fails to meet expectations.
PML-N’s main rival, Imran Khan’s PTI, through its “agenda for the first 100 days” is promising revolutionary changes in governance. But the agenda is no better than a wish list without a plan, strategy, and policy. Imran Khan may himself be reformist and is the hope of much of the younger, educated population and the urban middle class. But it is worrisome that his support base has a significant presence of elements of the status quo, including feudal elements and the military. There is also his past fancy for the Taliban to consider.
All this casts doubt on his credibility and credentials to reform the system. Yet there is no one else.
Democracy Debate in Pakistan
One of the reasons for lack of reforms is the absence of public pressure on the leadership. And that is mainly because the democracy debate in Pakistan is confused and confusing. Much of the confusion centers on democracy’s meaning and purpose. The intelligentsia may be right in perceiving it to be inherently a force for good as they see it in the West, but they also often ignore the fact that democracy that brought progress there was due to a range of reasons including just the political system itself. It was also an organizing idea that enjoyed support from society and with substance that rested on equality of opportunity, fairness, rule of law, accountability, safeguarding of basic human rights and freedoms, gender equality and protection of minorities. These were what some call democratic values.
By contrast, here in Pakistan, long years of military rule have caused so much of a democracy deficit that democracy has come to be seen by many as no more than civilian elected rule. The secular liberal class of course also sees it as an embodiment of freedoms, institutions and procedures which it believes will evolve and perfect themselves in time through the normal hydraulics of politics and periodic elections. We just need to be patient and wait, we are told, and let the “system” continue.
These two views largely set the limits of democracy debate in Pakistan and are basically off target.
The debate overlooks the fact that the evolution of democracy in the West was not passive, left to politics and electoral cycles. Western societies worked hard at the perfection of democracy over a period of time with the combined efforts of politicians, statesmen, learned men, moral critics, philosophers, and social reformers, and backed up by civil society and reform movements. Democracy itself had to be progressive in order to deliver progress to the society.
Democracy is a Revolution
Thus, in many ways, democracy is a revolution to restructure societies. It is a national effort, but it has to be led by political leadership as much of the change requires policies; and that means governance. That is why governance is quintessential to the quality of democracy. Without it, democracy is just politics and becomes a game politicians play.
In Pakistan, governance must begin by addressing the issues of intolerance and violence, regressive social structure, minority rights, weak rule of law, corruption, and social exclusion of the marginalized and vulnerable, particularly women. Not to mention the poor quality of justice, education and health services.
These issues have been ignored. Why? At the heart of Pakistan’s problems are a complex of serious imbalances, disparities and conflicts – in the political power and social structure; in the distribution of land, income and dispensation of justice; and in the relationship between provinces and between the majority and the minorities. And above all between the ruling elite and the people. Poor governance has not been due to any neglect. It has in fact helped to maintain these imbalances which is in the interest of certain elements of the status quo.
Yes, the economic structure is changing and there is an emerging middle class, rising young professionals, and growing urbanization. But that has not changed the political structure. The middle class, which is generally a stimulus for political change in developing democracies, has found it easier to compromise with the system than to engage in a power struggle.
The only power struggles that are taking place are among rival institutions. These are elite institutions that have historically tried to maintain their entrenched power and safeguard the system. They do relate to people, but to a minimal degree. They make alliances with and against each other; cooperate as allies, and compete as rivals. Pakistan needs a revolution, a democratic revolution that is, to change all this.
This revolution will not come about without the support of civil society and media. Yes, there is a vibrant civil society. But, unfortunately, there is also an uncivil one. And the media, especially the electronic media, at times appears less interested in democracy than in the spectacle of it; focusing on politics, not policies, and on personalities, rather than the people.
If democracy does not mend, the potential for disorder remains as there is much social discontent around. There is a large body of disinherited and marginalized population prone to seduction by extremist narratives. As it loses faith in the system, it will look for desperate alternatives. The key question for Pakistan then is to decide what kind of revolution it wants: whether it is one that will take on such worryingly extremist, exclusivist tones, or one that is more inclusive, moderate, and democratic.
Given its resources, human and natural, and its geopolitical location, Pakistan has enormous potential for a positive change. But it has to realize that elections by themselves do not change societies. They can only bring to power agents of change. Whosoever comes to power next will have to address the key challenge of Pakistan seriously— fixing democracy and Pakistan both at the same time.
Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown University and Syracuse University.