Pakistan’s enigma of democracy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WITH the local bodies elections looming large on the political horizon, the usual wheeling and dealing among politicians has started. This is not something new. In the backdrop, the debate on the quality of our democracy, if we can describe ourselves as one, continues endlessly.

The main issue of contention at the moment is whether a serving army chief can be a civilian head of state. It is also contended that the devolution of power he has instituted is designed to promote the hold of vested interests on the governance of the state.

In this context, it would be instructive to revisit the theoretical discourse on democracy. A lot has been written about it, Fareed Zakaria’s’ The Future of Freedom (2004) being one of the most thought-provoking. But in the scenario of the 21st century new elements have influenced the traditional concept of democracy — the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

No autocratic government wants to admit its true nature and therefore, it goes to any length to keep up the facade of being a democracy. There is a stigma of sorts in being an openly dictatorial regime. Hence, the efforts by unconstitutional governments to provide all the trappings of democracy to the state structure and proclaim themselves to be democratic.

According to Freedom House, a Washington-based organization which describes itself as a non-profit, nonpartisan think-tank and a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world, the number of electoral democracies in the world has risen from 69 to 119 since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. This shows that democracy as an idea has gained strength today than at any other time in human history. It has come to stay.

Yet democracy as a system does not necessarily ensure the real empowerment of the people which is the essence of a truly representative form of government. That is because the emphasis has been preponderantly on forms and rituals than on the roots of power and institutional structures.

For instance, elections are regarded as being fundamental to democracy and all debates on the subject in Pakistan have mostly centred on elections, their mode, frequency, qualifications of candidates, etc.

Freedom House has published since 1978 an annual comparative assessment of the state of political and civil liberties in 192 countries. With each country assigned a rating for these two elements based on a scale of one to seven (with one representing the highest degree of freedom and seven the lowest), in the 2005 report Pakistan is classified as “not free” with a score of 5.5.

This is not at all surprising. Even when this country has had elections — sometimes too frequently, as in the nineties — have we been any better off? The controlled polls under military rulers such as the electoral exercises of 1965 under President Ayub Khan, of 1985 under President Ziaul Haq, and of 2002 under General Pervez Musharraf did not give a voice to the people. Even the relatively free elections held by Yahya Khan in 1970 failed to produce a viable and stable representative government, and worse led to the break-up of the country. Ironically, in the elections conducted by civilian governments in 1977, 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997, the country fared no better in terms of their impact on the people and form of government.

The main factor in this crisis of democracy in Pakistan is the absence of a tradition of constitutional liberalism and the willingness of rulers — even elected ones — to respect the liberties and fundamental rights of citizens. Zakaria succinctly defines this as “tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy” that centres on the scope of governmental authority. Zakaria adds, “Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power; democracy is about its accumulation and use.”

Since we view the elected ruler as the representative of the people, the tendency is to allow him/her to encroach on those powers too which are not really in his/her domain. That is why our democratic rulers have also been so autocratic. This also explains why there has been no meaningful effort towards institution-building which is important if power is not to be centralized in an individual’s hands. Leave aside the political sector in Pakistan, society frowns upon dissent and does not encourage the freedom of expression to the people nor allow them to participate in public life if they are not conformist. Pluralism is conspicuous by its absence.

In this situation, democratic values receive no more than lip service. This pseudo-democracy of the modern age has created paradoxes which can have grim repercussions for Pakistan. On the one hand the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling class denies political empowerment and participatory roles to the people. On the other hand, technology, especially communication technology, and the thrust towards globalization have given groups power of a different kind.

Such groups which generally operate illicitly — drug smugglers, arms dealers, terrorists and others — disengage themselves from the legal, political and social framework of the state to enjoy unparalleled freedom.

They have become independent of the state and network with other likeminded groups to plan and carry out their operations. This so-called democratization of terror has been possible only in an age where democracy has on the one hand raised the expectations of the people and on the other failed to provide them the participation which would have contained their negative impulses.

In the days of yore when democracy was not a widely prevalent idea and the state could use force without any constraints, such groups were easier to check. But not so today. It is only by observing the rule of law fairly and honestly, that a government can neutralize the anti-state elements while retaining the support of the masses. A government without a popular base but which claims to be democratic creates problems for itself by tying its own hands.