OUR democratic journey is like that of a small boat caught in stormy seas. But in a country where the vast majority has not seen the fruits of democracy in real life, it is often hard for many to realise that democracy matters. Even highly educated persons often argue that we need good governance, whether it comes from democracy or autocracy.
Such talk reflects the sorry reality that even after 75 years, we have no consensus on democracy, unlike in most Saarc states where democracy is a given and the only debate is on improving it. It also reflects the sorrier fact that such people have not done a serious analysis of our own and global trends to realise that only democracy leads to durable good governance. Thus, such talk is reflective of not wisdom but naivete.
Democracy is a form of governance based on participation, tolerance and human rights unlike despotism. But for even many educated people, these are abstract luxuries that we can’t afford yet and governance must yield immediate economic progress, infrastructure, utilities and law and order even if via autocracy. A regime that doesn’t ensure participation, tolerance and human rights can’t give the latter concrete outcomes for too long, as global trends show.
Among the four autocracy types, monarchies are almost all gone, except the Gulf ones which thrive only on oil money. Army regimes today all do poorly in Myanmar, Sudan, Egypt and West Africa. Theocracy in Iran and Afghanistan is struggling. Among one-party autocracies, only China and Vietnam do well, but most others — as in North Korea, Cambodia, Laos and Central Asia — don’t. Also, none of our parties have the strength to be given carte blanche. Against this, dozens of democracies are doing well, even regionally. But democracy takes time to mature and deliver. In India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it took decades. Yet people there still stuck with it to later pick its tasty fruits.
Only democracy ensures good governance.
In Pakistan, even a few years of bad outcomes under a severely controlled democracy grappling with the bad legacies of long autocracy are enough for us to yearn for autocracy despite its decades of poor outcomes notwithstanding absolute powers and lavish US aid. Many blame all our ills on democracy even though we have not had even for one day the unshackled democracy some of our neighbours have had for decades. There were no national polls from 1947 to 1958 and a dubious constitution only lasted two years. Since 1958, our history is simple: we have been ruled directly by the establishment or by three parties (the PPP, PML-N and PTI) whose founders were initially brought into politics by the establishment which later fell foul of all three. Thirteen out of our 15 national polls and referenda since 1958 were seen to be rigged by the establishment and one by civilians (1977). We have dubiously invented a fifth autocracy type-hybrid musical chairs — where the establishment keeps changing the junior civilian face once it invariably becomes too big for its boots and starts wanting to don the establishment’s bigger and shinier boots, only to be booted out.
Until 1971, the main impetus for autocracy came from the Bengali numerical edge that banded together western civilian and khaki elites against democracy. Since then, the main impetus is the establishment’s unwillingness to let civilians rule. All three civilian elite groups — landed, commercial and middle class —have taken turns at forming parties, winning with varying levels of establishment support initially and then trying to tame it. Our problems are not the fruits of democracy but the thorns of autocracy as even our civilian regimes are establishment-controlled.
The five forms of autocracy can’t deliver in a huge, diverse and unruly state like ours. The way forward is democracy. Despite all the beating democracy has taken, its pre-fruits quickly sprout whenever the establishment loosens its grip even briefly as in 1972-77 and 2008-2018 in the form of the Constitution, devolution and fair polls. True, governance was still bad as democracy matures slowly.
Yet, our situation now is so bad, we can’t wait for democracy to yield good governance slowly. We need good governance right after the next polls to avoid doom. But we must not try to get it via a hybrid regime; it must be through fair polls. The media, civil society, the people, donors etc must democratically pressurise the winner to appoint a competent prime minister and cabinet, from its ranks and beyond, which undertakes equitable reforms while the Zardaris, Sharifs and Imran run their parties and support reforms. The next regime may be a make or break one for us. We can’t afford another business-as-usual one. If it fails, so may Pakistan.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
X (formerly Twitter): @NiazMurtaza2
Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2023