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Why Pakistanis lost faith in democracy?

Published Jul 11, 2012 06:12pm


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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

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.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (38) Closed

Cyrus Howell Jul 11, 2012 01:02pm
"So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men." -- Voltaire, 1764
Canadian Jul 11, 2012 01:21pm
Vision is required to develop a country. China made remarkable economic growth without democracy. Malaysia becomes a good economic power in less than 40 years by democracy. UAE become a business centre in less than 30 years under non-democratic government. The important point of these countries achievements is their leadership vision. Pakistan needs visionary people. The people in government and in opposition just blame USA and each others for poor conditions of Pakistan. People of Pakistan needs to reject bad guys by votes and people of Pakistan should elect visionary people by vote. This is some how take some time but the process is peaceful. Also, be patient people of Pakistan has voted a government for five years so let them complete the term and if you don't like the government you can select another political party for government. Rome is not build in one day
Iftikhar Jul 11, 2012 03:40pm
Its music to the rulers ears because they don't care for democracy either. Only thing they want is power and means to accumulate wealth.
aaa Jul 11, 2012 10:17pm
Until and unless there are any changes at the ground level there cant be faith in anything. One can tell people that statistics polls in the rest of the world should be followed to understand what is right and what is wrong but it doesnt help. Same things dont work in all the countries. One should first understand ones own country's problems and then go for what is important. You cannot treat cancer and polio with the same medicine.
Capt Mansur Jul 11, 2012 09:31pm
85% lost their faith in Democracy it is too late...I lost it in 1995. Pkaistan just needs a good ADMINISTRATOR or a DICTATOR or a MAO ZE TUNG. Regretfully no other solution the way situation is. sad so sad. Democracy/Plotiticans/Religous Extremists all are a failure.
haris Jul 11, 2012 04:07pm
Ssssshhhh! "Innhey sooney doo yeh kisi zaroori kaam sey soo rahey hain" Ssssshhhh! Let them sleep, they are sleeping for something very important.
Abdullah Hussain Jul 11, 2012 12:37pm
Author - "I wonder at times if Pakistanis understand what democracy truly entails" - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - I wonder if Pakistanis were ever afforded an opportunity to taste the fruit of TRUE Democracy. All that the voters got in the name of democracy is repentance. What has Pakistanis got by favoring democracy in the last four plus years? Extreme corruption, price hike, power shortage, law & order situation, target killings & pluses. Democracy is that unfortunate orphan in Pakistan that has got parent but still is forced to live a worst than orphan life.
Agha Ata Jul 11, 2012 12:39pm
Pakistan lost faith in democracy because we never had one!
Althaf Jul 11, 2012 04:43pm
Most people hold contradictory opinions about issues. So, this article is not all that surprising. You present yourself as "reasonable" and yet your recent rebuttal of an article in foreign policy was a willful and deliberate attempt to either ignore facts or to misinterpret them. When you can answer how that came about, you will gain an insight into your own thinking and that of Pakistanis.
Siraj Jul 12, 2012 11:44am
"everyone even the richest and the leaders will be equally treated under one law" I think you are mistaken in your understanding of Shariah Law, as it does not treat everyone equally under one law. e.g. religious minorities. The common law does treat everyone equally - just look at its application in UK, US, Canada, Australia, etc. Common law, also the basis of civil and criminal law in Pakistan has been transmogrified by legislative assemblies and judiciary into a mockery by creating inequality of treatment.
Tariq Jul 11, 2012 03:31pm
Understanding the process of democracy takes time and education. Democracy did not evolve over night in the west that took time and a lot of sacrifice. Now that there area laid down models to follow it's up to media and other governmental agencies to educate the public. The leaders be it civilian or military that so far we have been blessed with, it's the last thing they want is the general public to be educated! It's hard to comprehend that the vast majority of Pakistani public would favour an Islamic rule of government. Obviously there is more appetite yet for the 'Mullah' lead parties. Haven't people had their fill of the chaos that's been caused in the name of religion? If the appointed leader of the country, it's institutions and the general public at large followed the law truthfully and honestly that would be Islamic in itself. Islam is not a religion. It's a way of life! But in Pakistan we have forgotten the basic principles of Islam which we need to rediscover fast in order to get our country back on track. But please not through the present day Mullahs, they truly terrible sales reps of Islam.
guest Jul 12, 2012 12:31am
Why are you forever lurking in PK forums? Daily Mail server down? you obviously have no sympathy for Pk, or its residents... can't you allow us to bewail our fate in peace?
Akbar Jul 12, 2012 12:39am
Excess religion will in it self destroy the core fabric of Pakistan society that neighbouring countries will have to pay the price for this impending doom.
Karachi Wala Jul 11, 2012 01:37pm
I think we will have very interesting findings if somehow we can run a following study: 1- Starting with Gen. Zia, the popularity graph of each Govt. throughout its length. 2- A parallel graph of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan society in general and against women and minorities in particular, during the entire length of each Govt.
adnan khan Jul 11, 2012 05:13pm
A good survey and detailed report on the lives of pakistani i appreciate it but the author ignores one thing that is the religion.democracy has failed and it will because it empowers few people not the nation, dictatorship in the same way...i wonder why people not even discuss the benefits of SHARIAH LAWS in Pakistan.a system totally based on Islamic immunity to anyone,everyone even the richest and the leaders will be equally treated under one law.there will be no corruption,no robberies,no killings,timely justice for everyone and many many more least our media should start discussing the comparison between these two totally different systems.have you noticed that the crime against women has increased more by highlighting it on media.Sharmin made a documentary on women right and it has increased since than.west criticizes child labour but not providing any solution to it.Pakistan will flourish only if the president and prime minister get the same treatment under the law as an ordinary pakistani is getting and that can only be possible when the law is totally Islamic it is not possible under any other system of government like democracy and dictatorship.
Mohammad Masood Jul 11, 2012 11:48am
Nonsense survey report. Economy is important, but rule of law and accountability is more important.
bilal Jul 12, 2012 02:52am
a British National that i am, i came to live in Pakistan with a great deal of good hope...unfortunately it turned out to be a real disappointment...from what i've seen of pakistan, i dont really fink this country is gonna change even in a hundred years...get all these politicians out, get em flogged in public, and get honest people in...out of all of em, to me, musharraf was the best...pakistan wasnt as bad as it is at the moment, investors were still coming in...but in the 3 years from what ive seen, this country is something like living in hell...i plan to go back to the UK asap once im done finishing all my business here...
bilal Jul 12, 2012 02:55am
theres so word known as DEMOCRACY in this country...people here dont even kno what it is !!!! its really unfortunate to see the path this country is heading down...but we cant hide from the fact that people have really messed up a beautiful country...
Shankar Jul 11, 2012 12:23pm
I think we( the world ) should accept the will of the people without questionioning it. If they awnt ot be ruled by the law of Quron, so be it. Their loss of faith in democracy, though sad, is not surprising. Pakistan has a non-performing government. The government is constantly being weakened by the judiciary, the opposition and the military. Naturally people lose faith in democracy. The silverlining is that they have even less faith in Taliban.
Zakir Jul 11, 2012 08:03pm
We want Zaid Hamid to be our new Prime Minister , Gazwa E hind is the only solution
Indian Jul 12, 2012 06:00am
Surprisingly we in India also want Zaid Hamid to be the new President- primeminister or whatever is there who has complete control. Though our reasons would be completely different!!! Please make Zaid hamid your President!!!! Indians will vote for him!!
Omar Jul 11, 2012 06:47pm
Wow, well said!
NASAH (USA) Jul 12, 2012 05:48pm
I disagree -- Pakistanis -- despite all those charts and figures -- still like democracy -- because after 30 years of off and on army dictatorship -- there is STILL a democratic government operating at Federal and provincial level -- throughout the entire length and breadth of Pakistan. This is cause for optimism not pessimism. 3 cheers for Pakistan.
No Jul 11, 2012 06:15pm
Democracy will prevail in Pakistan if and when the democratic and human rights of women and other disenfranchised groups are recognised and protected. what an absurd argument. none of the ordinary pakistani is protected regardless of gender and group. Each and every ordinary pakistani should be recognised and be protected in any state, of any gender, of any belief.
Saracen Jul 11, 2012 06:14pm
All parties except PTI are traitors to Pakistan. It's that simple!
Shubs Jul 12, 2012 09:32am these difficut times, he does provide a good laugh once in a while...:-)
Tanvir Afgan Jul 11, 2012 12:08pm
The vast majority of Pakistanis are moderate in their personal lives and revile the brutals who attack their way of life. However,democracy has indeed disappointed them because it is indeed a fuedo democracy where feudalism rule as they do in their villages; mismanagement, extreme corruption, and poor governance have made hell for the ordinary folk. Let us hope that free and fair elections can be held soon and that the US stops medalling in the affairs of the country.
Vicky Jul 12, 2012 10:13am
lol i'm confused. Why wud u want him to be the person in power? :S
saadgadit Jul 13, 2012 07:29am
These so called surveys are of no mean. We are all educated and professional people commenting here and we all know how these surveys are made. It always happened with our country.. these mockup surveys will be used after elections (if our SC and military let them happen anyways) to prove rigging.. ahh same old story.. kept happening and keep on happening..
Fyst Jul 13, 2012 08:17am
all of us needs reminding from time to time
Aamir Khalil Jul 12, 2012 11:16am
Pakistani lost faith in democracy because in Pakistan ther is no rule of law no one is getting his fundamental rights, the people are from their rights, and one strong reason for failure of democracy is that , that we dont believe in democracy because of our corrupt leaders , if democracy is in the hands of people like these people then we dont need democratic rules we need dictatorship ,its far better than democracy.
Capricorn Jul 11, 2012 05:06pm
Pakistanis have lost hope in everything.
aamarrai Jul 11, 2012 12:13pm
People think that both type of rulers either democratic or dictators enjoyed their lives and common public have to pay the price in the form of very high inflation and increased debt. Pakistani governments have been claiming that they were unable to invest on education or health due to lack of tax collections ( in Pakistan, tax to GDP ratio is the lowest in the region). I found that actual problem is ' Trust Deficit'. The real puzzle is how to resolve the problem of Egg or Chicken. People need education in order to make their right decisions and elect better people to run the government. On the other hand, government needs taxes and especially indirect and from big guns like landlords or big corporations.
Indian Jul 12, 2012 05:58am
Mao was the biggest diaster for China. Go and read about him. If they did not have Mao they could have achieved greatness atleast a decade earlier!!!
Cyrus Howell Jul 12, 2012 11:27pm
No doubt.
haseeb nisar Jul 13, 2012 11:17am
In democracy,more than 1000 MNA's plus MPA's do corruption and in dictatorship only one or a few do corruption so more is left to be spent on country.Moreover dictators usually have more power so they deliver if they want to and its the only choice for them(to deliver) to gain popularity.Whereas in democracy politicians use other methods to satisfy people and they are left with very less to actually spent for the country.
Zero Jul 13, 2012 11:09am
People are smart; democracy doesn't fill a hungry stomach, economy does!
hamza khan Jul 13, 2012 04:02am
many pakistanis will agree that president musharraf was a good leader. honest, truly patriotic and visionary. i will pay anyone 1 million dollars to apply those adjectives to any political leader in the government today. though im not an imran supporter just yet, he has similar qualities, must admit. i await the return of mr. musharraf to see what if anything he can contribute.