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Democracy and Authoritarianism in Pakistan | By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Democracy and authoritarianism are two opposite political orders. Democracy is open, while authoritarianism is closed, unfree and oppressive when it faces resistance, challenge and fierce opposition. However, these two extremes have many shades of colours from very pale to a very solid bright. Pakistan’s struggling democracy has democratic features and a strong mix of authoritarian elements. When it comes to freedom of expression, right of association, political participation and fundamental rights, our democracy has come to acquire some strengths. Overall, compared with the barren political landscape of Muslim societies, Pakistan is the most free. That is of course good, but that is not all that matters in the democratic development of a society. At best, you may take it as meeting basic requirements, but then we have stuck at fundamentals for a long time.

The authoritarian, closed bit of Pakistan’s political order remains very dominant and casts a very heavy shadow over the democratic future of the country. It will be a partial view to associate authoritarianism with military rule alone. There is no doubt that it has played a consequential role in fostering an authoritarian political culture. The social roots of authoritarianism in Pakistan are deep in landownership patterns, the feudal dynamics of the country, in the caste system and in the tribal structures and religious world view. These elements have played an equally big role in assisting and sustaining military rule in the country. Pakistan has been in democratic transition for quite some time now. Its power, widely defined as economic, political and social, remains confined to a narrow band of elite.

It is owing to elite politics and power that Pakistan’s democratic transition remains incomplete and its consolidation quite uncertain and shaky. However, authoritarianism, narrowly defined here as a closed system of decision-making within the party organisations, is very much exercised without any qualm or question by non-elite parties — regional, ethnic and religious. The ‘great’ leader speaks for all, his is the most certain voice, and he controls the distribution of political goods within his power and privilege. The people surrounding the ‘great’ party bosses are either close family members or trusted friends that have served their ends of stealing public monies. The rest, even the elected members of legislatures, otherwise very respectable and from elite families, are kept at some distance.

In a closed system like ours, economic and political power circulates within a limited section of society. The fledging market system that we have, when compared with the stale political order, is robust and has many windows open for ambitious entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. What keeps them shackled, and largely our economy, too, is the heavy shadow of narrow political interests of the dominant political families.

The system is essentially closed in terms of recruitment of new political elite, as politics, since independence, has circulated within the elite family with the exception of some ethnic and religious parties. Even they have adopted a closed-door policy, only of their own kind and only with the blessings of the ‘great’ leader can they make an entry to the ranks of the party and may survive and flourish as long as the leader is pleased.

The rising middle class that has skills, education and ideas to move Pakistan forward cannot get space in the party system that we have, with a very undemocratic, authoritarian culture. The PTI does represent this class, but we have yet to see whether or not its middle class ranks will make the transition from waving flags to becoming electoral candidates.

Being closed, the system remains exclusive, outdated and devoid of any vision — politics circulating within iron rings.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th,  2015.

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