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Which way lies the solution?

I have never quite understood the fascination in the West, and among the liberal class everywhere else, to see the developing societies’ problems solely through the prism of democracy. There is a belief that the solution lies in democracy.

But the problem is that the word ‘democracy’ is used very loosely. On one end of the spectrum you have democracies that are superficial, transitional or stuck; and on the other end advanced democracies. Yet they are all referred to as democracies even though they differ vastly in performance and capability.

This lack of distinction sabotages our mind to create an illusion that if an ostensibly democratic ‘system’ were allowed to continue it would mature with repeated elections. And we fail to question the quality of democracy. Countries like Pakistan that have long suffered from a democracy deficit due to recurring military rule, despite having reasonably good credentials to be democratic, are particularly prone to this self-deception.

But what exactly is democracy? The reality is that the focus of democracy is people, and its theme is self-governance. So good policies are central to the quality of democracy as are values.

The secular/liberal class, Western-oriented sections of it in particular, are right in seeing a causal connection between democracy and progress in the advanced industrialized countries. But they forget that the democracy that brought progress in the West was more than a political system. It was also a society’s organizing idea whose substance was equality of opportunity, fairness, rule of law, accountability, safeguarding of basic human rights and freedoms, gender equality and protection of minorities. Democracy meant to make a difference to people’s lives.

We also need to keep in mind that advanced democracies evolved over a long period of time along with economic progress and socio-economic changes, and the progressive ideas and movements that came with it. Democracy did not just happen. It was a struggle.

But in Pakistan this struggle has not even begun. Powerful groups or institutions have long dominated Pakistan’s body politic by taking advantage of its security issues, the place of religion in its national makeup, and its feudal social structure. They have rallied around an organizing idea that was elite-led, security dominated, and religiously denominated. And have joined hands to seize the process of change establishing an enduring hegemony of the elite over people. Since its breakup, Pakistan has almost been recreated for their own benefit.

This elitist system was sustained by outside help. The services of the military, the country’s geopolitical location, and its Islamization had made Pakistan an attractive partner, for different reasons, to some external powers who became its principal benefactors. The leadership, already lacking commitment to progress and development, especially after Ayub Khan, got addicted to foreign assistance that became an incentive to poor governance and disincentive to self-reliance.

For many different reasons most politicians have had no electability issue, and thus no fear of accountability or an obligation to serve people. All they had to do was to minimally satisfy the population and keep its level of discontent low. And as easy money started coming through external assistance – that is, until recent years – it was not difficult to do so.

It was not elections politicians were worried about but being destabilized by public agitation, or by assault from non-civilian institutions, that played one party off the other and which led to them using religious parties as their allies against both. The net result: no party felt secure. This was a recipe for unending political instability.

Whether civilian or military rule, we have basically produced weak governments, especially since 1971 – governments that were more concerned with their own survival and did not take strong decisions that would have been good for the country but instead ended up making decisions that were politically costly. Z A Bhutto knew about the threats and uncertainties he faced. So he concentrated all his powers and political support into preparing for a one-party rule that required putting state resources at the party’s disposal. That is what his populism, nationalization, and the alleged rigged elections of 1977 were about, reversing all the development gains of Ayub Khan’s time.

Ziaul Haq had his own weakness: basically that of lacking legitimacy, which he covered by getting support from Islamists, and by strengthening his support base – the army – with the help of Americans and Saudis externally, and the bureaucracy, judiciary and business/industry at home. This limited his ability too to take tough measures as he had many constituencies to please. He ended up changing the structure of politics permanently by laying the foundations of a civil-military elite led system that was now dominated by the army. These were the beginnings of a hybrid system. After Zia neither Pakistan nor its politics have been the same.

Between 1971 and Zia’s death, a lot had happened in and around Pakistan to weaken its institutions and change its values. And the military’s profile had risen. Because of the global Islamic revival, Zia’s Islamization, the rise of Saudi influence in Pakistan, and the Afghan Jihad, religion had come to have big public resonance in Pakistan. Civilians were too intimidated by the growing power and influence of religious segments, or too ingratiating to the army. And because of their own corruption they knew they simply could not outperform the institution. They thus decided to join it instead of opposing the process. This was an alliance of the weak as each was too weak or lacked legitimacy to govern by itself. This elitist system in fact had feet of clay.

The model served the ruling establishment well while benefiting Pakistan up to a point. Politicians and the military took turns ruling the country, without reference to the people, and with help from external benefactors. This was no democracy.

The truth is that democracy has many components. First, the constitution. Then politics, which is a means for the people to relate to those mandated to govern on their behalf and to respond to their aspirations for justice, human security, economic wellbeing and basic freedoms. There is also the credible electoral process to help people choose political leadership, the principal architects of democracy. And there are institutions, providing the mechanism for good governance reflecting democratic values and the will of the people. Not to mention the enabling conditions to foster democracy – education, tolerance, and a culture that respects rule of law. Finally, of course there is media and civil society.

These ingredients and conditions are all organically linked and are creatures as well as creators of democracy. In Pakistan, except for the media and the civil society, they have all either failed, are failing or are flirting with failure. Not only that, the organizing idea itself – survival of an elite-led Pakistan by depending on external help – has also failed.

As external help dried up, Pakistan had to resort to borrowing to feed its dependency. That debt has now become unsustainable which, combined with the other challenges Pakistan has been facing internally and externally as a consequence of living dangerously for decades, led to the country finding itself in a monumental crisis. And democracy, which we had hoped would remove these flaws, has become a flaw itself.

People have lost hope. But populism is not the answer. The populist and his followers develop a symbiotic relationship. S/he pursues policies that meet a despairing population’s psychological and emotional needs more than serving the country’s interests, and people fulfill his/her need for adulation and power. Both get carried away, and s/he becomes the cause instead of the country.

It is hard to find the way out, but it is certainly not ‘democracy’. And democracy will not help either as it does not quite exist yet, nor do the conditions for it. Democratization is just another national challenge and needs to be pursued in tandem with other state and nation-building tasks.

Depending on their historical experience, social conditions, power structure, and economic potential, countries have met this dual challenge in their own different ways including ones that were not entirely democratic but necessary to dismantle the system that was resistant to change.

Touqir Hussain, "Which way lies the solution?," The News. 2023-10-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leadership , Politicians , Democracy , Gen Zia , Ayub Khan , Pakistan