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Is this democracy?

October 11, 2015


The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

PATRIOTIC Pakistanis spend many sleepless nights brooding incessantly whether Pakistan’s democracy brand is genuine. Having concluded glumly that it is not, based on unrealistic comparisons with Western countries, many call it plutocracy or sham democracy. However, such arguments present mere rhetoric, not logical definitions.

Despite huge differences in quality across Test and U-19 cricket, nobody labels the latter as non-cricket, since it meets basic cricketing prerequisites. Similarly, classifying Western countries as democracies and all others as non-democracies given differences in governance quality is improper. In reality, there are multiple categories of democratic countries with different governance quality.

Experts generally include credible elections and no formal political powers for non-elected institutions as basic prerequisites since they fulfil democracy’s bedrock of formal power transfer to genuine representatives. Pakistan has met both prerequisites since 2008 (The 2002 elections were non-credible while a military president could dismiss parliament).

Robert Dahl, a leading democracy expert, sets higher standards by adding near-universal election voting and competing rights; and basic freedom of expression, information and association. Pakistan meets even these require­­ments basically. It also possesses a rights-based Constitution despite dictator-era distortions, independent courts, a pesky media, a thriving civil society, plurality of power among political parties across provinces and increasing devolution, which all ensure basic accountability. Thus, Pakistan clearly ranks among the strongest basic democracies, however much critics may huff and puff.

Dictatorships have always left Pakistan in worse shape.

Governance quality also improves gradually under democracy, assuming peace and increasing incomes, literacy and urbanisation. All this is happening in Pakistan slowly. However, critics flatly refuse to accept that present-day democracy can ever mature. But is seven years sufficient time to judge it? It would be if most countries graduated from basic to advanced democracy sooner. But Western countries took 100-plus years while India, Brazil and Turkey remain intermediate democracies even after several decades.

Some improvement in governance is already visible since 2008. The BISP and CPEC represent Pakistan’s biggest anti-poverty and foreign investment programmes, which dictators could never produce.

Freed of political compulsions, the army has acted far more boldly against militants than it did under Musharraf. Economic risks have receded, even if only secondarily due to sound policies. Pakistan’s Transparency corruption perception scores have improved slightly after Musharraf. Power is being devolved to provinces and now even locally.

Serious reform still eludes politicians, but so it did dictators during longer rules. More critically long-term-wise, accountability is gradually strengthening faster than ever under dictators. Far more electoral reforms are happening now. The judiciary has attained independence after Musharraf’s frontal assaults. Thus, governance should improve further gradually given increasing accountability under democracy.

Against 4-6 successes, there are 100-plus failed dictatorships globally, yielding a paltry success rate of 3-5pc for dictatorships.

Prolonged democracy has a near-100pc success rate; prolonged dictatorship near-zero! Furthermore, Pakistan resembles the failed dictatorship countries more than East Asia along critical governance determinants. These include national history length; ethnic diversity; and pre-independence education, land reforms and industrialisation history. Thus, dictatorship is inherently unsuitable for Pakistan.

However, Pakis­tan has tried democracy intermittently but dictatorships and hybrid regimes unsuccessfully for much longer. These always left Pakistan in worse shape than when they started. Short-term growth under Ayub and Musharraf ended in severe violence given their flawed politics. Bangladesh has already unsuccessfully tried technocracy, another critics’ favorite. Thus, we reach the sobering conclusion that there are no widely proven alternatives to democracy for Pakistan-like countries. Must Pakistan be the one to risk all untested, quack-like recipes which invariably fail?

But many are willing to sacrifice Consti­tution, rule of law and slow-maturing democracy if corruption could magically be eradicated overnight. Is Pakistani corruption so alarmingly high compared with similar countries to justify extraordinary steps? Trans­pa­rency corruption perception scores for India and Pakistan are broadly similar (38pc vs 29pc).

In India, similar scores invoke Anna Hazare’s agitation, AAP’s rise and popular mobilisation, which strengthen democracy. In Pakistan, they invoke calls for army-led anti-corruption drives or take-over, which weaken democracy! Why such hugely different responses to similar scores? Perhaps, many Pakistanis have been brainwashed by those who benefit from autocracy.

The writer is a political economist.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2015

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