Democracy in Pakistan: Of the elite, for the elite, by the elite

Civilians and the military have taken turns to rule Pakistan, but the system, arguably, has remained the same, ‘unscathed’ by democracy.
Published March 29, 2023

One of the most perplexing debates around is on the subject of democracy, where it is easy to confuse concept with practice, form with substance and illusion with reality.

There is another problem. Countries at varying stages of democratic evolution are all called a democracy, which adds to the confusion, as we, in our mind, expect all these models to be equally responsive in meeting the needs of society. That makes us tolerate and endure a system that is not quite democratic and may never become so.

In Pakistan, democracy remains both illusive and elusive. What we have is something that looks like democracy, but does not work like one. Democracy is a dynamic, not static, process but Pakistan’s “democracy” is stuck.

If any “good” has come out of the current crisis, it is hopefully the realisation that the conventional wisdom that Pakistan’s problems are due to a lack of civilian supremacy, or because the “democratic system” has faced repeated interruptions by the military rule, or that elected governments have not been allowed to complete their full term may not be quite true.

Has the current crisis — and the way politicians’ brazen preoccupation with the struggle for power is ripping the country apart while it burns — left any doubt that the “democracy” we have has been part of the problem, not the solution? In fact, it is this very “democracy” that has provided legitimacy to bad governance, produced weak governments opposed to reforms for fear of losing elections, and has kept recycling. Above all, it has lacked substance.

Form and substance

True democracy has both form and substance. The form manifests itself in electoral democracy, sustained by a process of free and fair elections, and peaceful and orderly change of governments. But the form must embody good governance to empower people, and it can do so only by resting on free and representative institutions, constitutional liberalism or any other value-based system, strong rule of law, and a just and equitable social order. That is the substance. Without substance, democracy remains hollow. It has no soul.

The intelligentsia in Pakistan, especially the liberal/secularist segment, is most passionate about the Western liberal model focusing on freedom of choice, free speech, civil liberties, independent judiciary, and of course elections.

Much of this class lives emotionally disconnected from the rest of the population and their harsh challenges of survival and means to cope with them. It feels that all you need is elections, free media, independent judiciary, and the Constitution.

Voila! You have democracy — and it will take care of the nation’s problems, including those of the poor.

Democracy and progress

The secular/liberal class as a whole, and Western-oriented sections of it in particular, are right in seeing a causal connection between democracy and progress in advanced industrialised countries. They are, therefore, justified in emulating a similar democratic political system and having high expectations from it.

Where they are at fault is that they do not grasp the full picture. Most of them forget that democracy, which ostensibly brought progress in the West, was more than a political system. It was also a society’s organising 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.

In sum, democracy’s core idea was humanism. And the whole objective of giving people the right to choose who will govern them on their behalf was to ensure the implementation of this very ideal.

Otherwise, what is the purpose of self governance? Given the chance to self govern, would people like to bring themselves to grief with their own policies? Certainly this was not the intent.

Unless a nation shows this fundamental understanding of democracy and takes steps to put itself on the road to democracy, it will never get there. It will keep moving in circles or going backwards.

The poor cannot ‘feed’ on democracy

For much of the liberal class in Pakistan, especially its more affluent stratum, the form is the substance. It looks at democracy as simply black and white — there can be no gradation.

The fact is that Pakistan is, and is not, democratic.

Pakistan’s “democracy” is advanced enough to satisfy the liberals’ love of liberty and enjoyment of certain human freedoms, but regressed enough to be exploited by the elite for their purposes at the expense of the people.

In her book, ‘Thieves of State’, Sarah Chayes focuses on corruption in Afghanistan. Sarah, who spent a decade in Kandahar, concludes that the concerns of most people did not have much to do with democracy. Pakistan is, of course, no Afghanistan but the book has a message that applies here as well.

Democracy is no doubt the best form of government but go and ask the masses in societies that are grappling with serious state and nation-building challenges what is most important in their lives. What is important for them, they will tell you, is social and economic justice, human security and dignity and the hope for a better future. And they will like any government that provides this kind of life.

A USAID official once asked me what the people of Pakistan want. Development or democracy? Prompt came my reply — if democracy brings development, they want democracy; if it does not, they want development.

Basically, you need a democracy that satisfies the human aspirations for freedom as well as improves the quality of life for citizens at large.

Freedoms are meaningless if they do not provide for the whole society’s welfare and progress.

Pakistan’s ‘democracy’ a political tool for power

In Pakistan’s case, “democracy” is just a political tool for the dominant social groups to maintain their wealth and status. The other instrument is military rule.

But the beneficiaries are roughly the same in both models — the whole panoply of power comprising the top tier of politicians, bureaucrats, the military and judiciary, “business folk and the landed”, who among them monopolise the country’s economic resources.

The civil and military leaderships may compete for power, but eventually cooperate to maintain the status quo. Both use each other — the military using the failure of the politicians as a pretext to come to power or to dominate it, and politicians using the alibi of military interruption or dominance for their own failure. They are allies as well as rivals.

In Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson trace the evolution of political and economic institutions around the globe and argue that nations are not destined to succeed or fail due to geography or culture, but because of the emergence of extractive or inclusive institutions within them.

They write:

“Extractive political institutions concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the exercise of this power. Economic institutions are then often structured by this elite to extract resources from the rest of the society. Extractive economic institutions thus naturally accompany extractive political institutions. In fact, they must inherently depend on extractive political institutions for their survival … political institutions enable elites controlling political power to choose economic institutions with few constraints of opposing forces. They also enable the elites to structure future political institutions and their evolution.”

In light of their thesis, we can see how powerful groups or institutions have long dominated Pakistan’s body politic by taking advantage of its security issues, place of religion in its national makeup and its feudal social structure. The political system that emerges from this body politic is designed to empower only the powerful and privileged and does little to foster the rule of law.

Musical chairs

Civilians and the military have taken turns to rule Pakistan, but the system, arguably, has remained the same, ‘unscathed’ by democracy. There was no fear of accountability, and no obstacle to electability. They did not need the people, so they did very little for them. And neither of them faced the full wrath of the public as each deflected the blame on to the other.

When the cost of maintaining a “democracy” led by civilians would become unbearable, we would tolerate the army’s intervention to help us get rid of them. But instead of returning to the barracks, the military would stay on. Then we’d long for democracy, which would let us down yet again. The fact is that no institution is solely responsible for democracy’s misfortunes in Pakistan. They all provided opportunity to each other to come to power and supported the system.

In the civilian edition that now comprises the ruling coalition, politicians may be divided into political parties but are united by the elites. Henceforth, whichever party comes to power when the ongoing bloody struggle for power is over, it will likely be no different from others in being invested in the system. It may disrupt the system, but will not threaten it.

Liberty and order

Even if Pakistan had a fully functional Western liberal democracy, it was not going to solve the country’s fundamental challenges. The fact is the Western liberal democratic model has become too competitive. In their book, ‘Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century’, Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels challenge the view that the liberal democratic model is intrinsic to good governance. Examining this in relation to widely varying political and cultural contexts, especially the Chinese system, the authors advocate a mix of order and liberty.

When asked once on the Charlie Rose Show what he thought of Western democracy, Lee Kuan Yew — the inaugural prime minister of Singapore — replied that the system had become so competitive and combative that in order to come to power, the opposition spent all its time planning to undermine the incumbent government by misrepresenting or distorting issues and thus misleading the public. “It would be a sad day when this kind of democracy comes to Singapore,” he said.

In his classic, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria states that Singapore follows its own brand of liberal constitutionalism, where there are limits on political freedoms — and it happens to be one of the most self-content countries in the world.

It boggles one’s mind that we in Pakistan tolerate the civil-military led political and governance structure, which is rigged in favour of the elite, while using the full freedom of a democratic system to play the game of politics at people’s expense. We put up with it as if this behaviour is an acceptable price to be a “democracy”, which incidentally does not quite happen to be a democracy. Indeed, there are institutions that one finds in a democratic system, but they lack autonomy and integrity. They have failed in the moral strength to serve the people, but not in the capacity to sustain the system.

You can see how millions of good Pakistanis are glued to TV or their phones every day following the comings and goings of politicians as if they were going to solve the country’s problems. We forget that their fights are about themselves, among themselves.

Democratisation is a revolutionary struggle

You cannot change what you do not know. The creation of a true democracy is a revolutionary struggle. And it must begin with the realisation that the “democracy” we have will not solve our problems regardless of who is in power. We cannot also bank on this “democracy” to become democracy by itself.

Countries change not because they have become democratic. They become democratic because they have changed. In many ways, democratisation is a painstaking struggle, indistinguishable from state and nation-building. Progressive movements and the civil rights campaign in America, political and social movements in Europe and the Meiji Restoration in Japan are a few such instances.

How will this change occur in Pakistan?

That is the subject of a much wider and complex debate. Briefly, one can say the following: Pakistan has enormous strengths — remarkable resilience, faith-based optimism, a sense of exceptionalism, a vibrant media and a promising civil society.

There is enormous talent available within the country — academics, journalists, authors (many of them internationally acclaimed), political activists, retired public servants — both civil and military — who all have shown extraordinary knowledge and commitment to Pakistan. They can inspire and mobilise the young generation yearning for true change that could provide stimulus and critical mass for social movements.

I am not advocating for military rule or a technocratic government. Let the current political process for all its flaws continue. It cannot or should not be overthrown but can be undermined over time.

That will be the purpose of social movements — to remove the obstacles to a genuine democracy in Pakistan. These include a misplaced focus on faith that has fostered extremism and hindered openness and tolerance, and a feudal dominance that has inhibited education, gender equality, openness to modern ideas and a credible political process.

Not to mention the military’s pre-eminence that has led to the dominance of security over development. The latter has skewed national priorities and resource allocation. All this is hardly a life-supporting environment for democracy.

Can Pakistan truly become democratic? Yes, it can. Whether it will remains to be seen.

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