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Why Pakistanis lost faith in democracy?

July 11, 2012

A recent poll of six Muslim countries revealed that Pakistanis by far were the least likely to favour democracy. Compared with Turkey, where 71 per cent of the respondents favoured democracy, only 42 per cent of Pakistanis held the same view.

A recently released report by the Pew Research Centre showed that unlike Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of respondents in the other five Muslim majority countries preferred democracy.  And while Pakistanis demonstrated a half-hearted appreciation for democratic principles, an overwhelming majority (82 per cent) expressed preference for the laws to follow the Quranic injunctions. In comparison, only 60 per cent of Egyptians wanted their laws to follow Quran.

These statistics may lead some to believe that Pakistanis may be following the fundamentalist Taliban or al Qaeda. This, I would argue, will be an erroneous conclusion, which ignores the complex socio-economic realities of Pakistan.

Given that the democratic rule and institutions have been in place in Pakistan since 2008 and that the democratic forces have, more than once, prevailed over military dictatorship in Pakistan, the lack of enthusiasm from democracy amongst Pakistanis should be a concern for all.  At the same time one wonders why the remaining 58 per cent Pakistanis no longer see democracy as the preferred system of governance.

‘It’s the economy, stupid’

A careful review of the Pew survey offers hints of why democracy is no longer favoured by most Pakistanis. It appears that James Carville’s adage “It’s the economy, stupid” also holds true for Pakistan where 58 per cent of Pakistanis preferred strong economy over a good democracy (34 per cent). While I see the two as not mutually exclusive, still Pakistanis appear more prudent to prefer bread, clothing, and shelter over empty promises of the same from the beneficiaries of the electoral processes.

The Zardari government, which came to power in 2008, is partially responsible for people losing faith in democracy in Pakistan. Their mismanagement and poor governance has made the lives of ordinary Pakistanis difficult who now live in a country where water and power supplies are intermittent at best, law and order do not exist, and unemployment amongst the youth has reached unprecedented highs.

In 2007, when Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator, 59 per cent of Pakistanis expressed faith in the nation’s economy. A mere 9 per cent of Pakistanis today are optimistic about their economic outlook. Pakistan’s civil bureaucracy and political leadership of all stripes must wonder why most Pakistanis were confident about the state of the nation’s economy under a military dictator and why more than 90 per cent of Pakistanis have no faith in the nation’s economy when the electoral democracy prevails in the country. In fact, 43 per cent Pakistanis today believe that the economic situation in the country will worsen over the next year; hardly a reason to celebrate democracy in Pakistan.

-Source: Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

Is the fundamentalist Islam the answer?

If democracy is not their preferred model of governance, do Pakistanis favour a Taliban style fundamentalist Islamic state? After all, 62 per cent of Pakistanis, up from 46 per cent in 2010, would like to see Islam play a major role in politics.

These numbers may give some comfort to the leaders of Pakistan Defence Council (PDC). However, their optimism in these numbers will be extremely misguided. An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis is distressed about the sorry state of economic affairs. Given that PDC has nothing more to its credit than holding rallies and marches, the electorate is unlikely to handover the government to clerics who have nothing to show for economic plans.

Pakistanis, unlike the respondents in other Muslim majority countries, deserve a lot of credit for not becoming entangled in the rhetoric of the fundamentalist groups. Note that only 13 per cent of Pakistanis holds a favourable view of al Qaeda and the Taliban. In comparison, one in five Egyptians holds a favourable view of al Qaeda and the Taliban. At the same time, 39 per cent of Egyptians and 44 per cent Jordanians hold a favourable view of Hamas and one in every two Tunisians also favours Hamas.

What then, explains the enigma that 82 per cent of Pakistanis want to have their laws adhere to the Quran, but only 13 per cent support the Taliban and others who champion similar causes.  The answer to this question is rather complex. I am of the view that Pakistanis see Islam as a benevolent religion and by following its principles they believe they may be able to restore justice and prosperity in the country. This may be the reason that while being religious, still an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis do not conform to the orthodoxies portrayed as the religion by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Do Pakistanis recognise democracy?

I wonder at times if Pakistanis understand what democracy truly entails. Is it merely the electoral outcomes that constitute democracy in their minds or is it the all-encompassing manifestation of respect, freedom, and equity that one would associate with the very idea of democracy. Pakistanis appear rather confused about even the electoral manifestation of democracy.  Consider that in the Pew survey 52 per cent of Pakistanis believed that the Saudi Arabian government supported democracy in the Middle East. It is rather absurd to think that the Saudi government promotes democracy in the region while it shuns the same practice at home and even denies women the right to drive a car.

Consider also the fact that 63 per cent of Pakistanis believe holding free and fair elections to be very important, yet only 28 per cent of Pakistanis value free media. The rest would rather see print and electronic media censored. At the same time, only one in five Pakistanis supports unbridled access to the Internet. Democracy rests on having free and unbridled access to, and exchange of, ideas and information. If the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis would rather censor media and the Internet, and therefore prevent open debate, their desire to hold free elections may remain an unrealised dream.

Whereas Pakistanis continue to hold conflicting objectives for democracy they also suffer from the Messiah syndrome. Instead of striving to build democratic institutions, a large number of Pakistanis would prefer to wait for a strong leader who may one day turn their fortunes around.  When asked to choose between a democratic government or a strong leader, 61 per cent of Pakistanis opted for a strong leader over democracy. This is hardly productive. No one man can fix the nation, especially when democratic principles are not embedded in the social fabric.

Democracy will prevail in Pakistan if and when the democratic and human rights of women and other disenfranchised groups are recognised and protected. This, however, is not the case today. Consider the fundamental human right of women to choose their own spouse, which (according to the Pew survey) is supported by a mere 11 per cent of Pakistanis. The remaining 89 per cent believe that the family should choose the spouse for the woman. This is dictatorial to say the least, resulting in a direct conflict between what is desired at the household level and what is preferred for the nation.

As long as Pakistanis (mostly male) continue to dictate choices for their daughters, sisters, and other women in the family or in the neighbourhood, they continue to be part of the microcosm of dictatorship, which when aggregated to the national level will never transform into true democracy.

The challenge therefore is to embrace democracy in all its manifestations rather than cherry-picking the democratic norms that conform to the tribal practices.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.