By Saad Hafiz
Discontent and annoyance with democracy is picking up pace in Pakistan. The promise of an unprecedented era of lengthy civilian rule appears to be in jeopardy. A sort of toxic impatience with the democratic process, which has always existed in the political discourse, is being rekindled. There is public frustration and resentment against the elected central government. The government is seen as distant, unresponsive and subservient to powerful interests. The litany of complaints includes corruption and incompetence, the inability to provide physical and economic security and the failure to address chronic energy and fuel shortages. Politicians are seen as corrupted by power, and following a long tradition in which politics is used as a spoils system for personal enrichment. It is also unhelpful that democracies in general, especially developing democracies like Pakistan, are bad at selling themselves. On the surface, they appear weak, riven with conflict and self-criticism. They air their corruption scandals in public. They allow public protests. By contrast, illegitimate autocracies appear smooth and united until, suddenly, they are not.
As disillusionment with politics and politicians grows, we begin to hear the familiar mantra that better governance and economic growth in developing countries like Pakistan requires a one-party state or authoritarian rule since democracies just cannot make good decisions. The corruption and misdeeds of the civilian politicians elected to high state office are cited as an excuse for another experiment in ‘controlled’ democracy, direct military intervention and martial rule. It is suggested that only a caudillo, the classic Latin strongman, a Hercules can solve the longstanding problems that plague the country. In this context, it is worth saying that the record of past Pakistani dictatorships does not inspire confidence. These dictatorships delivered short spurts of high economic growth but also contributed significantly to national disasters such as the secession of East Pakistan, the metamorphosis of religious extremism and the legacy of extra-constitutional actions.
What is too often overlooked in the perennial democracy versus dictatorship debate is the fact that Pakistan’s nominal and fragile democracy is built on shaky foundations. Many of the country’s grave political, economic and social problems, including failure of parliamentary democracy to take firm root, emanate from the oligarchic structure of the state and the forces that sustain this structure. Hereditary plutocracy allows for the outward appearance of democracy through elections but without the rights and institutions that are equally important aspects of a functioning democratic system such as entrenched constitutional rights and independent judiciaries. The veneer of parliamentary democracy conceals the reality that important affairs of state are conducted by powerful military and bureaucratic arms directly, in the absence of any democratic procedures and structures. The political realities of Pakistan, with more than 60 years of history behind them, are quite clear: democracy takes a backseat to the machinations of the ruling elite, whose interests are rarely in sync with the general population.
We know that Pakistan’s problems are many, in particular its weak economy, tiny tax base, chronic energy shortages and often-feckless leadership. The country’s large cities are terrorist and sectarian killing fields. Each of these problems compounded by the others creates a snowball effect that is proving to be more than the state — democratic or authoritarian — can handle. The stern test posed by rising extremism, the breakdown of law and order and energy shortages compound one of the biggest challenges of all: a population of 180 million people that is expected to grow to 335 million by 2050. The long-term solution to the country’s problems rests in more and effective democracy, not less. This democracy must be rules-based, fulfilling a fundamental demand, one that has motivated people over many decades to take a stand against corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments. For sustained stability, Pakistan needs pluralism, power sharing and institutions that can resolve conflict, not suppress it. In the past, the concentration of power in the central state has been its own justification for attempting to resolve all types of national issues by application of coercive force, rather than political negotiation and democratic consensus building, with disastrous social and political consequences. A bold and concrete plan ought to be put into effect to strengthen the democratic system by dismantling the oligarchic and oppressive edifice of the state.
Instead of searching for Hercules, Pakistanis can learn from a political system that manages divided politics, pervasive inequalities and ethnic discord. They can look toward the developing democracies of Brazil, India and South Africa. These countries thrive despite ethnic and cultural divides far worse than those in Pakistan. Despite high levels of poverty and inequality, they have been able to balance the demands of wildly divergent ethnic, religious and political groups, while creating the basis for fast economic growth. More fundamentally, they have let people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures. Building the institutions needed to sustain democracy is very slow work indeed. This dispels the once popular notion that democracy will blossom rapidly and spontaneously once the seed is planted. That said, the example of so many people in so many different parts of the world being prepared to risk so much for democracy is testimony to its enduring appeal.