VIEW: Is Pakistan a democracy? —Ahmad Faruqui
The “boots on the ground” all wear khaki. The best that can be said about those boots is that they tread softly. Under a post-modern military dictator, Pakistan appears to have perfected the art of enlightened militarism
My friends in America often quarrel with me when I say that Pakistan is not a democracy. Our discussions quickly devolve into one of three arguments. The first one is that Pakistanis don’t want democracy, since they have had uniformly bad experiences of it. The second one is that General Musharraf is an enlightened ruler so why bother looking for anyone else. Finally, I am told that Pakistan is already a democracy.
The first argument implies that because Pakistanis have had bad experiences in the past, they have given up on democracy. That is surely not the case. The University of Michigan survey cited in an earlier column showed conclusively that Pakistanis want the right to choose their own rulers and to get rid of them if they don’t like them.
Some argue that Islam does not allow for democracy. This is clearly false since Pakistan is governed by a constitution that calls for parliamentary democracy and many other Muslim nations including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey have democratic governments. Still others have argued that poor and illiterate countries cannot be democracies but the presence of democracy in India belies this thesis.
All this does not mean that democracy is a panacea. There is no dearth of bad democratic leaders in Pakistan or elsewhere. But if democracy lets in bad leaders through the ballot box, the same mechanism also provides for their removal. The ballot box is a much better means for removing bad rulers than a coup d’etat.
The second argument overlooks the fact that a military dictator, regardless of how benevolent and competent he might be, is a ruler with no checks or balances on his or her powers. History has shown that most such rulers ultimately become despots and tyrants and as witnessed in the case of Pakistan, none leave their post voluntarily. Moreover, there is no guarantee that future military rulers will be benevolent or competent. This too has been discussed in prior columns.
Thus, in this column, I focus on the third argument, that Pakistan is a democracy. To settle the debate, we need a definition of democracy. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best, when he dedicated the national cemetery at the battlefield of Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 and said that democracy was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
In the fifth century BC, Greeks coined the word by combining demos (people) and kratia (to rule). To them, democracy simply meant “rule of the people.” The earliest democracies were practised by small city-states such as Athens where each citizen participated in the law-making.
Today, a democratic dispensation includes political parties that contest elections and a polity in which individuals are treated equally and enjoy constitutional rights and freedoms as well as duties. Thus, democracy is a form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation that usually involves regular elections.
It is important to note that elections are a necessary but insufficient condition for a successful democracy. They have often been used by dictatorial regimes to give a false sense of democracy, internally and externally. Authoritarian rulers such as Hosni Mubarak, Ferdinand Marcos and Saddam Hussein have imposed restrictions on who can stand for election, limiting the laws that can be brought before parliament, by using unfair voting practices and falsifying results.
When making a transition from dictatorial to democratic rule, it is equally necessary to create a democratic culture in which a “loyal opposition” can exist. All sides in a democracy need to share a common commitment to its basic values. The ground rules of society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate and the losers must accept the judgment of the voters when the election is over, and transfer power peacefully.
The losers are safe in the knowledge that they will not lose their lives or liberty, but can continue to participate in public life. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.
Another feature is that parliament has sovereign authority over all government expenditures (including those of the military) and to impose taxes. The judiciary has the power to declare military coups unconstitutional and to uphold the rule of law while settling disputes.
Good governance should not be confused with democracy. A benevolent dictator might be selfless and less corrupt than all prior civilian rulers. He may well act in the national interest, pursue sound economic policies that result in rapid economic growth and development, lower the poverty level, encourage freedom of the press, push a liberal social agenda and establish peace with neighbours. But none of these conditions individually or collectively converts a dictatorship into a democracy.
Pakistan experienced rapid economic growth during the Ayub and Zia dictatorships but that did not transform either ruler into a democrat, even though both tried to surround themselves with the trappings of democracy. Musharraf is pursuing many sound social, economic and political policies but this does not make him a democrat.
The people of Pakistan do not have the ability to understand, let alone challenge General Musharraf’s edicts, such as his decision to place Mukhtar Mai on the Exit Control List. Yes, there is a parliament that makes laws and there is a judiciary that dispenses justice. There is even a civilian prime minister with a cabinet of civilians. But none can prevail against the writ of the Praetorian state.
A supra-constitutional executive exists outside of legislative and judicial purview. At the federal and provincial levels, the real power resides with the army chief and his corps commanders.
A couple of analogies come to mind. A woman cannot be half pregnant. An individual cannot be half married. And so it is with countries. They can either be democracies or dictatorships. They cannot be both.
There is something to be said for the dictatorships that govern China, Myanmar and North Korea. They do not claim to be democracies.
Politics has been called the art of the possible. Thus, nuances matter. But they do not change the ground reality of Pakistan’s polity. The “boots on the ground” all wear khaki. The best that can be said about those boots is that they tread softly. Under a post-modern military dictator, Pakistan appears to have perfected the art of enlightened militarism.
Dr. Ahmad Faruqui is director of research at the American Institute of International Studies and can be reached at Faruqui@pacbell.net