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Autocratic wheel reinvented

September 23, 2012

AT a time when democracy has emerged as the most legitimate, and effective form of government, many in Pakistan are still lured by the folly of authoritarian rule.

Since full-blown authoritarianism is out of fashion, a veritable group of neo-authoritarians in academia, civil society and the media are advocating democracy by ‘other’ means.

Their litany of complaints against parliamentary democracy is quite familiar. They see it as a shallow ritual hijacked by ‘non-democratic’ or ‘feudal-dominated’ parties that have nothing substantive to offer the ‘poor masses’.

While they have no problem justifying authoritarian solutions to political and economic problems in the name of the ‘masses’, these neo-authoritarians have no respect for the choices of the same masses at the ballot box.

For many of them, the Pakistani electorate is a mob of ‘village idiots’ who cast their ballot not for policies, but for access to patronage driven by pre-modern kinship loyalties. A former Musharraf-era minister apparently recommends imposing an electoral apartheid, allowing only the literate to vote.

Conveniently omitted from this condescending narrative is the role of militarised authoritarian rule in fostering and reinforcing sub-national divisions and rent-seeking to undercut partisan attachments and ensure regime survival. Not to mention the glaring inconsistency in declaring illiteracy as the main impediment to both democracy and development without accounting for the failure of over 30 years of ‘enlightened’ military autocracy to achieve universal literacy.

Some of these neo-authoritarian elites also consider ‘procedure’ (read elections) as insufficient or inadequate for consolidating ‘real’ democracy. To them, democracy is merely a means to the end of development. Their mantra is seductively straightforward: performance first, participation later.

But this is a false choice, a reinvention of the classic autocratic ruse that democracy can flourish only when it can deliver the goodies, or to put it in donor-fetishised parlance, ‘good governance’.

Participation and performance are not mutually exclusive. In most longstanding democracies in Europe as well as several in Asia and Latin America, democratisation advanced in a sequential manner under conditions of political continuity.

In these contexts, sustained economic growth and greater income equality have been products of the protracted functioning of democratic institutions rather than the prerequisites of its survival or stability. In other words, democratic procedures are a necessary condition for democratic substance, not vice versa.

But these authoritarian apologists would still like to put the cart before the horse. Dangerously enough, some of them can be seen as goading the military by linking poor civilian performance to military intervention via mass discontent. This is a deliberate obfuscation of history.

No military coup in Pakistan has been the expression of popular will. No mass uprisings have demanded military intervention.

More than any other factor, its institutional interests and ethos have motivated the military to unlock its armouries when civilian ‘corruption’ or ‘crises’ have threatened ‘national security’.

The typical justification for authoritarian governments is their superior economic performance vis-à-vis democratic governments.

But even if they achieve short-term growth, non-democracies cannot sustain their highly skewed economic ‘miracles’ because they lack the political institutions needed to check arbitrary power and moderate social conflict over resources, and ultimately founder on the rock of legitimacy.

Is it any wonder that military governments in Pakistan have typically ended amidst contentious societal opposition?

Let’s examine the non-democratic models floating around. First, there is the so-called Bangladesh model, a euphemism for a ‘soft’ coup that would install a technocratic government, which would then carry out radical political and economic reforms under the guidance of the military.

But Bangladesh should serve as a cautionary tale, not a model to replicate. Quite aside from the military’s conservative orientation, the Bangladeshi one had to retreat to the barracks within two years because it failed to ‘cleanse’ politics and undermine the popular support of the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The other is presidentialism; a form of government typically touted as a paragon of stability and policy effectiveness by past military autocrats in Pakistan and elsewhere. However, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that presidential government is more stable or effective than parliamentary governments in transitional contexts.

In fact, parliamentary democracies are more conducive to democratic consolidation than presidential ones, in part because of the principle of ‘mutual dependence’ between the prime minister and the legislature, which reduces the likelihood of ‘divided’ and ‘deadlocked’ government (e.g., president lacks parliamentary support but is in power for a fixed term).

However, some of our neo-authoritarians are calling for a ‘different’ presidential ‘democracy’, guided by a ‘judicial council of elders’ with the authority to approve presidential and cabinet-level appointments. Ultimately, this egregious business of ‘democracy with adjectives’ distorts the very concept of democratic government. A democracy means authoritative civilian rule in which those elected in universally enfranchised elections make policy decisions, free of any constraints imposed by non-elected institutions.

Judged by this minimal, and, indeed, realistic standard: there may be different degrees of democracy.

The PPP-led government can be faulted for many political and economic shortcomings. But let us not forget that ‘bad governance’ has long been the military establishment’s favorite stick with which to beat democratically elected governments.

In fact, the current government has been taking fire from the security establishment and its influential allies in the media right from its first year in office, much before its ‘misgovernance’ had become evident.

It must be acknowledged that since 2008, the present parliament has enacted historic constitutional reforms that have begun to address the country’s crucial ‘federal’ problem, mismanaged by decades of centralised authoritarian rule. When Pakistan is fast approaching the historical watershed of its first peaceful transition from one elected government to another, we simply cannot afford another authoritarian intervention.

No matter what form it takes, it will only further push Pakistan’s complicated structural problems under the carpet in favour of short-term technocratic fixes.

The writer is a research fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University.