The democratic uncertainty of Pakistan

Everyone in Pakistan wants democracy; ironically, this includes the army, which intervenes every now and then to put the country back on the rails and introduce 'true' democracy. Just as every Western state defined peace differently in the 20 years between the world wars, democracy seems to have acquired various meanings within Pakistan, which depend on one's ideological and political leanings. The Pakistan Army has repeatedly shown an inclination to place itself within the political system in an arbitrator's role. To this extent, it wants a 'controlled' rather than an unfettered democracy. At least two military generals – Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf – have tried to wed the political conservatism of the military to liberal policies in the social and economic realms. Political parties have similarly tended to eschew any normative framework in the conduct of politics, and even centrist parties have shown a tendency to court political and social conservatism while pursuing – at least in the case of Mian Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) – economic liberalism. In the long run, the one negates the other. The religious right, meanwhile, agrees with the form of democracy – elections, Parliament, etcetera – but wants to grab power to further the spread of Islam in the country. It is also imbued with an all-pervasive conservatism in the spheres of politics and socio-economic relations. Smaller nationalist parties, secular for the most part, do not have the capacity to impact national politics directly, and squander any ability they might have to liberalise the socio-political sphere by remaining confrontational on parochial issues such as the rights of the smaller provinces. Somewhat more nationalist in its approach, but still essentially a party with its basis in ethnicity, is the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) in urban Sindh. It is secular, middle-class and progressive. But it has tended to act in violent ways, and retains the pathology of a small party. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is the only political entity with inroads into all four federal units. It is also the only party with an agenda that is liberal on all three counts: political, social and economic. This scenario has put Pakistan in a quandary – not just when it comes to establishing and sustaining democracy, but also in terms of identifying and strengthening a norm that could characterise the functioning of various political actors and the relations between them. It is important to note that while the army can be blamed for its interventions, there is empirical evidence that political forces themselves have repeatedly failed, during democratic intervals, to act prudently and develop a tradition of democracy. Not majority opinion The philosopher Karl Popper termed public opinion "an irresponsible form of power", and warned liberals of its dangers. It was easy to understand and desirable to minimise the power of the state, but how, other than through the agency of the state, might the individual be saved from the tyranny of public opinion? And if the state is needed for such protection, how does one square these conflicting requirements? Through a "certain tradition", argued Popper. Of what tradition did Popper speak? As Project Democracy fails in several states, not just in Asia but also in Europe, it is important to revisit what he said. Democracy as such cannot confer any benefits upon the citizens and it should not be expected to do so. In fact, democracy can do nothing – only the citizens of the democracy can act (including, of course, those citizens who comprise the government). Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way.
We are democrats, not because the majority is always right, but because democratic traditions are the least evil ones which we know. If the majority (or 'public opinion') decides in favour of tyranny, a democrat need not therefore suppose that some fatal inconsistency in his views has been revealed. He will realise, rather, that the democratic tradition in his country was not strong enough. Contained in this analysis are two crucial points. First, democracy is not only about the rule of majority opinion. Second, while it is vital to keep the state in check, it may in some situations be equally or more crucial to use the state's protection to safeguard and advance an eminently sensible course of action, which may not have the power of public opinion behind it. The past few decades have seen the failure of people's power in various states. Flower and coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe have given way to the same old governmental lethargy and the lack of an internal norm so essential for preventing politics from degenerating into anarchy. The "certain tradition" Popper talked about seems missing. The incisive Alexis de Tocqueville expressed concern about precisely these circumstances when he wrote, his 1835 Democracy in America: "If men are to remain civilised or become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased." Any discussion of democracy in Pakistan, as in other states that have seen its ebb and flow, must move away from a near-absolute faith in its dividends, and towards consideration of the paradoxes contained in the Popper quote above and of de Tocqueville's pre-condition of the "art of associating". Equally dangerous, however, is the reformist who comes to power, whether through a vote or a coup, and waves a blueprint of reforms that he and only he can deliver. Pakistan, as it stands today, is the story of these paradoxes. For this reason, any discussion or analysis of the country's politics must be watchful on the one hand of simplistic understandings of democracy (what political scientist Fareed Zakaria calls 'illiberal democracy'), and on the other of the proven inability of strongmen to determine the exit strategy from the hold they have put on democracy in the name of reform. Praetorian fault-lines Pakistan's 59-year-long history is replete with political uncertainty. Each brief run of democracy has ended in a military coup. For this reason, the country has remained unable to complete the transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic one. While Pakistan has not seen mobilised violence, which drastically reduces the prospects of political democracy, it has suffered from an inability on the part of political actors during periods of transition to determine how and to what uses newly acquired democratic authority should be put. For the most part, this has resulted in political brinkmanship among leading political actors, which in turn leads to the breakdown, at some point, of the democratic cycle into another military coup. This is why Pakistanis initially welcomed all the three coups d'etat (leaving aside the internal transition in 1969 from General Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan, and the 1993 'soft coup' by General Waheed Kakar) as respite from the uncertainty of poor political governance. It is a matter of record that when Pervez Musharraf mounted his coup – or what he calls the 'counter-coup' – on 12 October 1999, he was hailed by a large segment of the Pakistani people. The Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political force, which the ousted Prime Minister Sharif had chased from pillar to post, was ecstatic. Many of its workers distributed sweets on the streets. The intelligentsia was relieved that Sharif had gone and the era of democratic totalitarianism had come to an end. The liberal-secular sections of society were glad that he could no longer fulfil his agenda of making Sharia the basis of legislation, which would arguably have converted Pakistan into a theocratic state. At this stage we run into a paradox. It is important for a genuine political process to begin, in order to fill in the current fault-lines within the polity; yet, to open up the system by means of a vote would sharpen the salience of these fault-lines. What is the remedy? This is not a theoretical question. Last October, Anatol Lieven wrote in the International Herald Tribune: Most developing countries seem closer to the melancholy pattern of most of Latin America over the past century, of a cyclical movement between flawed democracies and ineffective dictatorships and back again – a process interspersed with numerous 'people-power revolutions' that turn out to have made no real difference whatsoever. This assessment brings us to what Samuel Huntington posited in the late 1960s: some societies evince a praetorian strand. 'Praetorian' normally refers to a military that displays a tendency to mount coups. Huntington, however, used the term to describe societies in which, in the absence of a normative basis for political functioning, all groups, including the military, vie to capture state power for themselves. Looking at the issue of military interventions, Huntington dismissed the thesis that an explanation of these interventions would require an analysis of the military itself: "Military explanations do not explain military interventions … because the most important causes of military intervention in politics are not military but political, and reflect not the social and organisational characteristics of the military establishment but the political and institutional structure of the society." Huntington sought to look for explanations in society itself, because countries grappling with the cycle that Lieven described show that the "society as a whole is out-of-joint, not just the military". As such, the military usually wins. As Thomas Hobbes put it aptly, "When nothing else is turned up, clubs are trumps". The political interregnums are as bad as the military ones. In a praetorian society – Huntington lists three stages of praetorianism: oligarchical, radical and mass – political participation and modernisation do not result in political development but in political decay. This is why as a society graduates from oligarchical to radical and, finally, mass praetorianism, its chances of getting out of the cycle steadily diminish. Increased political participation in such a society, in the absence of political norms and "political institutions capable of mediating, refining and moderating group political action" means increased anarchy and chaos. Huntington's thesis steadily lost adherents because, besides being culturally deterministic, it was also seen as an apology for military interventions. His praise for military dictators or reformers – in the case of Pakistan, Ayub Khan – was deemed inimical to a movement towards political participation and activity. Yet, when Pakistan finally managed its first national election in 1970, the exercise in political participation did not bring about national cohesion or an aggregation of interests. It tore the country asunder. Furthermore, it may be noted that while accepting reformist or military rule in a praetorian society at a particular point in history, Huntington does not accept it as desirable beyond that point. He makes clear that military leaders or reformers need to take steps towards two goals. First, they must not allow oligarchical praetorianism to move towards radical praetorianism, or the latter to further degenerate into mass praetorianism – in which everyone enters into the political fray in the continuing lack of political evolution and the absence of acceptance of the rules of the game. Second, they need to break the praetorian cycle. If a country, despite a line of reformers and military leaders, has not broken the cycle, one can only say that the problem is even more complex than Huntington thought it was. The third party Pakistan's case also relates to the problem of military interventions and flawed democracies. In attempting to capture the country's political space, the two parties that alternated in power from 1988-99 failed to devise a code of conduct or a norm for political practice. Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, much more so than the PPP, had allied with the army to put down the opposition. But the 11-year opportunity to agree on an endogenous norm was squandered by both parties as each tried to pull the other down. On 14 May this year, when they signed the Charter of Democracy in London, the pressure to offer a mea culpa and the resolve to stay the democratic course in order to retain the legitimacy of the political opposition were born of the regret the two parties now feel, having been thrown into the political wilderness. However, given their conduct since then, it is clear that they agree on nothing beyond getting rid of General Musharraf. In 1999, however, the situation was different. As per the past script – in which the decline in the fortunes of one party meant an automatic incline in the fortunes of the other – the PPP was confident that with Sharif and his League shown the door, the PPP was the natural candidate for the high table. But Gen Musharraf had other plans. The first thing he did was to chalk out a seven-point agenda for reform, which he announced before the country. The army, by this plan, would immediately get to work restructuring the political system – "total restructuring", as Gen Musharraf put it. Its first task was to cleanse the system of the two parties – PML-N and PPP – that had shared the spoils of power during the 11-year 'democratic' interregnum. This entailed the ouster of both the premiers who had also alternated during that period. In his recently published autobiography In the Line of Fire, Gen Musharraf recounts: I set myself a seven-point agenda … 1. Rebuild national confidence and morale. 2. Strengthen the federation, remove inter-provincial disharmony. 3. Revive the economy and restore investors' confidence. 4. Ensure law and order and dispense speedy justice. 5. Depoliticise state institutions. 6. Devolve power to the grassroots. 7. Ensure swift accountability across the board. Having swept aside the two main political parties, he decided to embark on this programme in a political vacuum. As most military dictators are, Gen Musharraf was convinced of several things: the political system should be purged, corruption should be uprooted, the economy should be put in the fast lane and, for all this to work, the country should be depoliticised. However, to make all this happen, the army needed to retain its primacy without having to constantly intervene in the system as an external player. In other words, the system needed to be engineered to bring the military in as the legitimate arbiter, rather than as an actor that must jump into the arena from the outside and then seek legitimacy through the highest court. To this end, Gen Musharraf presented his epigram: if you want to keep the army out, bring it in. But alongside the military, of course, he needed a political partner, and got down to the task of creating a third, viable political force – an entity that would not only neutralise the two main political parties, but also give him the political legitimacy he needed to pursue his agenda. This party was created from Sharif's PML-N. He also brought into the loop some smaller political groups, and managed, after some initial difficulty, to wean from the PPP some of its members. This project of creating an alternative political force severely compromised the idealism of the seven-point agenda. Most of the currently ruling PML – which began as the PML-Quaid-e-Azam and has since rechristened itself the Pakistan Muslim League – members are equally, if not more, corrupt than the opposition members that Gen Musharraf has since chosen to target. Simultaneously, to keep the PPP and the PML-N out of political reckoning, the general-president supported the six-party religious alliance, the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, the United Action Front), to become the official opposition in the National Assembly. On the plus side, even before he decided to ally Pakistan with the United States following the events of 11 September 2001, Gen Musharraf was a cultural liberal. Before the 2002 elections, he ran government through a quasi-political arrangement that included liberal technocrats and members of NGOs. Since 9/11, he has coined and made famous the slogan of 'enlightened moderation'. However, his cultural liberalism has not prevented him from pursuing a politics that is socially conservative. He supported the religious right not only in order to keep at bay the PPP, which shares his liberalism, but also because, with the MMA enjoying the spoils of the system, the federal government can more easily remain engaged in the pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the North-West Frontier Province. For Gen Musharraf, this has spelled a gradual break with liberal elements that have watched him with increasing suspicion, and now distrust his motives. This mistrust is exacerbated by the impunity with which Gen Musharraf has gone about amending the constitution while pussyfooting on issues such as the repeal of the Blasphemy Law and the Hudood Ordinances, the streamlining of the seminaries and the purging of textbooks. Indeed, it is only recently that the president has recovered a little of the ground he has lost with liberals, by pushing a reluctant ruling party to pass a Women's Protection Bill, which has taken some of the sting out of the Hudood Ordinances (see accompanying story, "Fighting Hudood, protecting women"). Since the PPP took a principled stand on the issue, it voted in favour of the government's passing of the bill. For Gen Musharraf, equally damaging as the lack of liberal support is the threat of resignations he now faces from the MMA, which is becoming increasingly strident and which also shows internal fault-lines. Gen Musharraf's dilemma is a classic one. On the one hand, he genuinely wants to effect certain reforms to improve Pakistan's image as a moderate state. On the other, he is reluctant to broaden his political support-base in pursuit of this agenda, because doing so – especially if he co-opts the PPP – would mean allowing space to a political actor that could ultimately challenge the primacy of the Pakistan Army. Any clipping of the army's wings, he feels, could once again plunge the country into the old cycle. The fact that he still feels this way means that the institutionalisation he talks about (and is often downright boastful of) – whereby norms are developed on the basis of which politics is practiced, leading to an inclusive system of governance – is far from fruition. Nothing makes this more evident than the general's insistence on not doffing his uniform – because, he claims, to do so "is not in the country's interest". A new alliance? Two factors emerge from this. First, despite having engineered the system as he pleased, Gen Musharraf knows that his real power-base is the Pakistan Army, and not the office of president. Second, he knows that the opposition in Pakistan is waiting in the wings, and that if it were to smell blood, it would quickly move in for the kill. On both counts, and despite some of the good work he has done – bringing Pakistan out of isolation, improving the economy, normalising relations with India, making the press more free, referring to and promoting liberal values – the system atop which he sits remains fragile. Equally, however, the political parties do not seem to have overcome the flaws that have led the country to the crises it has experienced, both past and present. The rightwing suffers from an intolerant ideology, and if elections were to bring to power certain elements within the MMA, Pakistan would lose whatever progress it might have made in the past seven years – at least in terms of the economic upturn and social liberalisation. The ruling PML has a natural affinity with the MMA, rather than with the PPP's liberal agenda. The PML-N is also much closer ideologically to the MMA than it is to its Charter of Democracy partner, the PPP. The MQM, despite its secularism and full support to Gen Musharraf, remains an ethnic party confined to urban Sindh. Other secular parties are mostly NWFP- and Balochistan-based nationalist groupings. They may like Gen Musharraf's liberal agenda, but are completely out of tune with some of his policies; most feel that instead of devolving power, he has further centralised it. Decentralisation being the main plank of their provincial politics, they remain even more cut off from the federal government. Islamabad's development agenda for Balochistan has great economic, social and strategic significance for Pakistan. But the Baloch are not prepared to buy into these plans because the divisive nature of politics over the past six decades has ensured that national consensus remains elusive, even on issues of vital importance for everyone. As the country moves towards the 2007 elections, the president will have to rethink some of his strategies in view of the response to the Women's Protection Bill by various political parties, including his own ruling PML. One third of the PML members abstained from voting on that bill, and it could not have been passed without the support of the PPP, which has yet to accept Gen Musharraf as the country's president. Meanwhile, his religious allies, the MMA, are increasingly seeking to distance themselves from the general-president, and may resign ahead of the elections so they can again campaign on the basis of Islam. The PML-N, despite its alliance with the PPP, opposed the Women's Protection Bill, reflecting the long-known truth that they hold nothing in common aside from their desire to oust Gen Musharraf. The ruling PML, meanwhile, has shown itself incapable of carrying forward the president's liberal agenda. If a premium is placed on the agenda for reform, Gen Musharraf will have to think about allying with the PPP. Reaching out to the PPP, however, would require making a deal with that party, and would also mean a major realignment of political forces in Pakistan. If Gen Musharraf does extend a hand to the PPP, allowing that party to be a true political actor and to link up with other secular-liberal elements across the country, the next elections would be contested by the consolidated liberal camp against the culturally conservative and Islamist elements. In some ways, such a changed dynamic would free Gen Musharraf of the conflict that has continued to run throughout his seven-year tenure. It would also, however, sharpen the fault-line between the liberals and the conservatives. Of course, this scenario presupposes that Gen Musharraf is likely to stay in the driver's seat for at least another five years. If that does come to pass, the political environment of Pakistan will depend on how effectively he can sell his policies by enlisting genuine political actors. The process of reform may slow down in such a case, but it will definitely acquire more legitimacy, and may become more acceptable to recalcitrant elements within the smaller provinces. President Musharraf's review of his alliances will not automatically resolve the issue of the place of the army within the system. As such, it is difficult to see what kind of arrangement may evolve in the future. But until such time as the political parties come of age and the army loses its praetorian edge, the pattern of Pakistan's political experience suggests that a civil-military partnership may be the safest bet.

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