by Saad Hafiz
Pakistan is in the grip of the political dysfunction that seems to manifest itself again and again. For six decades, power in Pakistan has teetered between military dictatorship and civilian rule. As usual, there is a lack of ideas and sense of direction despite the abundance of rhetoric. Any forced change is unlikely to address Pakistan’s deep-rooted problems of sectarianism, corruption and extremism. With politicians at odds and the developing chaos in the streets, probable extra-constitutional measures can only exacerbate the crisis, with terrorists taking advantage of the unrest. Once again, Pakistan’s ability to regress never ceases to amaze.
A crucial factor that has contributed to Pakistan’s unending instability is the cycle of dictatorship and democracy. Pakistan has had an unbroken chain of ineffective democratic governments, followed by dictator-led ineffective governments since its inception and adoption of its constitution in 1956. When the credibility of civilians was exhausted, the people welcomed the army; when the generals overstayed their welcome the citizens returned to political parties. This cycle continues today with another ineffective democratic government on the verge of removal and the possible reinstitution of an unelected setup. This vicious cycle precludes development and investment in the citizens of the country.
The violation of democratic norms to effect change will add to the country’s seemingly perpetual crises of governance and political legitimacy. It can disrupt the long and difficult task of building democratic institutions and creating a system of accountability and trust between the government and people, state and society. The usual mantra that civilians cannot manage democracy is already being heard. Next, anti-democratic forces will point to Pakistan’s unique socioeconomic and political realities to argue that parliamentary democracy is ill-suited to Pakistan’s environment. As a result, another experiment in ‘real’ (read controlled) democracy appears on the cards.
Sadly, Pakistan is set to squander one of its few advantages: an imperfect but working democracy and some recent hard earned progress towards the rule of law. The country is facing a dangerous moment, where the credibility of both the military and politicians seems to have ebbed beyond recovery. How long before the poor and the middle classes turn to the theocrats waiting to take over? The state has already ceded territory to terrorists. These hard men are a very different breed from the mullahs who have already been co-opted and corrupted by the system.
Moreover, any cosmetic change in the system will not address the primary reason for the unending political and social turmoil, which is that political and economic power has always remained concentrated in the same hands. Historically, a few hundred families in total have run the government and dominated the all-powerful spheres of the country. They are part of the military, bureaucracy, politics and civil service, and draw their core support from the elite. The nexus of the military-feudal-bureaucracy-
Past economic policies have also favoured the elite and helped them get richer. This has allowed the elite to perpetuate an unequal society with the skilful use of power in their own interests. The masses, on the other hand, have failed to see a massive change in their lifestyle and often complain of inflation and corruption. Pakistan needs a state that takes up the responsibility of providing education and healthcare, which will weaken the grip of the mullahs. It requires a state where the army’s job is only to look after the borders and save the people from any external or internal aggression, which will dramatically curtail the powers of the almighty top brass. Democracies are better placed to assure the development of an equitable economy that works towards the elimination of poverty, without which there cannot be a sustainable state.
While the desire for change is understandable, nothing is ever going to change fundamentally in Pakistan until someone comes along capable of shifting the culture and getting to grips with the endemic tolerance of bad and corrupt practices. This requires that a democratic process remain undisrupted, with the politicians occasionally taking time off from fighting each other to actually govern. This will compel them to build roads, schools and other infrastructure so they can get votes to try and stay in power. When the opposition comes into power, it too should direct resources for their constituencies and interest groups, but they should not tear down the work done by previous governments. This is democracy at work: slow, sputtering, ugly progress but progress nonetheless. This is the central reason why other countries have managed to progress over the past 68 years and why Pakistan remains so far behind.