Pakistan’s relationship with democracy is somewhat complex. Since the very inception democracy was unable to find its roots among the masses. This can partly be attributed to the fact that masses were never really awarded the opportunity to acquaint themselves with democracy as the first general elections in Pakistan were held in 1970 – more than two decades after independence! In the decades following the first general elections, people have paradoxically developed a “love-hate relationship” with the democratic regimes and hence, the overall idea of democracy.
Rooting for Benevolent Despots
Whenever democracy is restored, a select segment of the society begins repeating an old mantra i.e. Pakistan and democracy are not compatible as democratic pluralism promotes ethnic rifts which will result in strengthening of ethic parties.
This school of thought also equates secularism with atheism. For them religious extremism and violence is the creation of the ‘anti-state’ and ‘anti-Islam’ elements which is “obviously” a foreign conspiracy.
This segment questions the ability of masses to elect representatives because as per their standpoint the masses are illiterate and ignorant and can be easily bought for a “qeema wala naan”.
The solution they suggest is either an enlightened authoritarian or technocratic team of specialists to govern the masses.
The Problem With Despotic Rule
Under autocratic and despotic regimes there have been mass movements for the restoration of democracy and they have been successful to an extent. However, whenever democracy is restored several quarters will undermine its efforts to flourish.
Now I am not negating the fact that elected governments are often overshadowed by corruption allegations and nepotism but that is also the case with dictatorial regimes. However, in the case of the latter state suppression does not allow the flaws of the ruler to be brought out in the open. Thus, this is not a substantial logic to outset the elected representatives, as – history has shown – we crave for democracy no matter how benevolent the despot is.
Political turmoil, civil war and chronic institutional clashes have plagued the country for most of its turbulent 69-year history. Pakistan went through a series of traumatic developments as long sessions of military rule have been interrupted by short-lived civilian governments, and a lethal mix of political violence and religious extremism have also long been a threat to democracy.
Religious extremism has flourished under authoritarian regimes. For instance, militant groups such as Al-Shams and Al-Badar garnered strength in General Ayub’s era resulting in massive atrocities being committed in the 1971 war. Sectarian militant groups such as Laskar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Suhaba were formulated under Zia’s regime in an attempt to weaken the political parties. Such groups failed to win any significant electoral support but were successful in creating sectarian disharmony in Pakistan which is still ripe in the country and claiming lives everyday.
Give Democracy a Chance
The failure of the democratic process in Pakistan can be attributed to a number of reasons.
There is of course the question of feudal political leaders and their undemocratic and corrupt practices when in power. The most ironic of these practices has been the reluctance of democratically elected representatives to devolve power to the grass-roots level. On the flip side the military rulers in the past have given local government institutions better treatment by allocating massive resources. Of course it wasn’t their love for democracy but the need to garner public support for their policies and legitimacy for their regimes besides undermining political parties that propelled this move.
Frequent military interventions at critical junctures is another element that has played spoiled sport to sustainable democracy in Pakistan. On the other hand there are foreign influences that have supported military governments for their own vested interests in the region.
The case that I’m trying to make with all that has been said is that with all its flaws democracy still remains the best bet for Pakistan. I accept that there is an urgent need to rigorously improve the system and the processes that feed into it. That said, with democracy we at least secure our right to demand improvements unlike a dictatorship where rulers have made some terrible choices for Pakistan without as much as being questioned let alone challenged!
The democratic transition in Pakistan is for the first time now about to complete a decade if the elections are held in May 2018. While this may be a norm in most democracies, for Pakistan this is going to be a milestone. My plea to the masses: let Pakistan achieve this milestone.