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A stable democracy?

March 26, 2013

IN a rare instance, a credibly elected parliament has completed its term in Pakistan, raising hopes that Pakistani democracy has finally matured.

However, some pro-democracy writers and newspapers keep reading conspiracies in various military and judicial actions. So, has Pakistani democracy really matured?

Political scientists use the concept of democratic consolidation to measure national democratic progress. Consolidation includes two sub-components: stability and quality. Democratic stability occurs once democracy is accepted as a country’s best governance option by all kingmakers, and when credible elections occur regularly.

Democratic quality means that power is exercised democratically after such elections, resulting in good governance. Although democratic quality is the ultimate goal, I focus here on the more immediate milestone of democratic stability.

So have all kingmakers finally and forever accepted democracy as Pakistan’s best governance option? The list of Pakistani kingmaker groups includes the military, the media, mafia, militants, judiciary, industrialists, landlords and some foreign countries.

A detailed analysis of the preferences of all these kingmakers will far exceed available space. However, most kingmakers can only operate indirectly through groups which can topple democracy directly. Thus, the former can topple democracy only if the latter groups agree. Fortunately, the list of these latter groups includes only the military and militants. Hence, one can develop a good estimation of Pakistani democratic stability even by reviewing only the inclinations of these two.

Four sets of factors influence the willingness and ability of various groups to undermine democracy. Structural factors include macro-level societal fundamentals, eg, the higher per capita income and literacy the more stable is democracy.

Institutional factors encompass the relative strength of various societal institutions, eg, the more powerful political parties and judiciary in relation to the military, the more stable is democracy.

Strategic choice factors include the choices of powerful individuals based on self-interest, eg Zia and Musharraf’s coups while facing termination by elected leaders.

Finally, transient factors refer to chance occurrences which undermine democracy nationally, eg the Soviet Afghanistan invasion strengthened the military and militants in Pakistan. Since structural and institutional factors are far more fundamental and less easily reversible than transient and strategic choice factors, democracy truly becomes stable when the former become favourable for democracy.

These factors help in analysing the ability and willingness of the military and militants to undermine Pakistani democracy. The militants abhor democracy and see their version of caliphate as a better governance option for Pakistan. Their ability to realise this dream reached a peak under military-man Musharraf when their physical conquests stretched to within 100km of Islamabad.

Since then, while their willingness remains undiminished, few outside their ranks give them any realistic chance of conquering Pakistan the way militants once conquered Afghanistan and Somalia. However, they remain a major nuisance without being able to take over.

The factors identified above help in understanding their contrasting fortunes. The movement is kept alive by the two less fundamental sets of factors, ie, strategic choice (eg personal desires of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan leaders for power) and transient external factors (eg Pakistani Army’s post-US Afghanistan calculations). But, institutional (eg the capacity gap between the TTP and the Pakistan Army) and structural (eg Pakistan’s higher per capita income than Somalia and Afghanistan) factors make an outright TTP victory nearly impossible. Thus, Pakistani democracy’s defences against militants rest on the solid foundations of the two fundamental sets of factors.

While the military keeps the militants at bay, its own predisposition towards democracy remains ambivalent. With respect to structural factors, Pakistan is still far below the per capita income and literacy levels where countries generally become immune to military coups.

Institutionally, the military is not only physically stronger than political parties (a quick march by the Triple-1 brigade alone can topple elected governments), but also enjoys greater credibility.

The recent emergence of a fiercely independent and to-date pro-democracy judiciary (and to a lesser extent media) has somewhat reduced the credibility edge of the military over pro-democracy institutions.

Even so, unlike Pakistani democracy’s sturdy defences against a militant takeover, Pakistani democracy’s recent success in avoiding a military takeover unfortunately rests largely on less fundamental and easily reversible strategic choice (eg the army chief’s individual preferences) and transient (eg international pressure) factors. This clearly is bad news for pro-democracy forces.

This does not mean that a military coup is imminent. Coups are only one possible governance alternative to democracy for the Pakistani military. Because of their overuse and repeated failures, coups have also become discredited internationally and domestically, and therefore costly for the military to exercise.

The other options include the current de facto control over strategic governance (security and foreign) domains and the Bangladesh technocratic model whose use may face less resistance externally and internally. However, as in Bangladesh, the model will fail in Pakistan too since timid technocrats, while comfortable with crafting mid-range policies under visionary leaders, will be out of their league tackling the socio-economic problems of a country as complex, vast and unpredictable as Pakistan.

It was technocrats who crafted Pakistan’s economic policies that caused much inequality and grief in the sixties. Thus, even if applied in Pakistan, this model cannot be used repeatedly or indefinitely. Ultimately, democracy will re-emerge within three to five years.

So, while the last 65 years saw 40 years of autocracy, the coming decades will likely witness either uninterrupted, though partially managed, democracy, or at most a last desperate three to five years’ failed experimentation with an alternative (the Bangladesh model) and then a resigned acceptance of democracy as Pakistan’s fait accompli despite all its faults. In other words, while it is premature to consider Pakistani democracy stable, it can safely be termed as a gradually stabilising one.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.