Something remarkable happened in Greece earlier this week. After years of IMF and EU imposed austerity, and its associated economic hardship, and decades of political dominance by a two-party establishment comprised of the center-right New Democracy and the center-left Socialists, Greek voters decided to make a radical break with the past by choosing to elect the Coalition of the Radical Left, also known as Syriza. Campaigning on a platform that promised an end to corruption, a crackdown on tax-evading oligarchs and, perhaps most significantly, a renegotiation of the terms under which Greece was bailed out by the EU and IMF in 2010, Alexis Tsipras and his party represented a welcome shift away from a mainstream political consensus that had repeatedly demonstrated an inability to address the economic grievances of average Greeks or challenge entrenched elite interests at home and abroad. In just ten years, Syriza has gone from being a marginal political entity to one commanding a majority in parliament, and may even prove to be a harbinger for similar kinds of change in other parts of Europe, with parties like Podemos in Spain actively trying to replicate its success.
Where there is hope in Greece, there appears to be none in Pakistan. Even as terror continues to rear its ugly head across the country, most recently on Friday when dozens lost their lives after an Imambargah was bombed in Shikarpur, the obvious failings and shortcomings of the government have started to become even more evident. The petrol and power crises have exposed the PML-N’s inability to deliver effective governance, and President Obama’s visit to India has been seized upon by critics of the government as evidence of its inability to articulate and secure Pakistan’s international interests. Predictably enough, commentators in the print and electronic media have taken to questioning the PML-N’s ability to rule the country at this ‘critical juncture’, with some going so far as to say that the entire democratic system is to blame for the country’s travails.
When this argument is made, it generally takes a number of predictable forms. Unabashed supporters of a role for the military in Pakistan’s politics, including members of political parties that have served under military regimes in the past, take any evidence of civilian incompetence as a justification for demanding the abolition of the democratic setup. That Pakistan’s many military governments have failed to rectify these very same problems, and have sometimes exacerbated them, is something that is conveniently ignored. A second variant of this argument is often rooted in support for rival political parties, with those sympathetic to these organizations seeing the weakness of the government as an opportunity to push for its dissolution, with an unconstitutional or non-democratic transfer of power being seen as a legitimate means to an end.
The historical amnesia, cynicism, and facetiousness of these approaches is self-evident. However, another, more insidious variation on this theme notes all the corruption, nepotism, arbitrary abuse of power, and lack of vision that define the government, and despairs at the fact that little has changed or improved despite almost seven years of democratic rule. This line of reasoning, which is all the more compelling since it is usually advanced by self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ who might otherwise be associated with progressive values, treats Pakistan’s crises, particularly with regards to Islamist militancy and terrorism, as requiring urgent and immediate attention, and therefore sees itself as having little choice but to compromise on democratic principles in the name of pragmatism and expediency. Over the past few years, it is this line of reasoning that had led many to uncritically endorse drone warfare, support the reintroduction of the death penalty and military courts, unquestioningly back military operations in the north-west, and vacillate over the motives, and implications, of extra-systemic political threats to the democratic dispensation.
There is an intuitive plausibility to these arguments; after all, only the most dyed-in-the-wool PML-N partisan would suggest that the government has been doing a good job and in the absence of a viable agenda for reform, it is tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater and call for regime change. However, to succumb to this logic would be to ignore the broader framework of Pakistani politics; yes, the government is venal and incompetent, and deserves all of the blame that it gets, but to argue this is the fault of democracy is to assume that democracy in Pakistan has been given a chance to develop unimpeded. Successful and substantive democratization is a process, not an event. It requires time and space to develop the institutional mechanisms through which it generates accountability and delivers better governance. Yes, politics in Pakistan is hopelessly corrupt, dominated by elites who preside over networks of patronage and view public service as little more than a means through which to pursue private gain. Yes, the government appears to have nothing even remotely resembling a plan, with nepotism and the interests of the powerful taking precedence over the formulation and implementation of much needed reform. This is all true, but it is hardly new. Systemic problems of this kind were never going to disappear overnight, and the capacity to rectify them is only going to emerge over time. The difficulty is only compounded in a context where the military establishment and its civilian collaborators continue to undermine democracy behind the scenes by fostering instability and jealously guarding traditional areas of influence like foreign policy.
This does not mean that the PML-N should be immune from criticism, or that support for democracy should entail turning a blind eye to the government’s ineptitude. Criticism and opposition are fundamental to the democratic process, and are the means through which change is facilitated. However, as I have argued before in this space, change is not something that is intrinsically good; instead, we have to pay close and careful attention to the type of change that we support. Calling for the military to depose a civilian government is hardly a workable solution, especially when considering the history of such interventions in Pakistan. Similarly, backing a rival party to replace the PML-N, through non-democratic means if necessary, does not automatically imply that any new government thus formed would perform better than the one it supplants. This is particularly true when considering how all of Pakistan’s mainstream parties are characterized by the same structural flaws that define the PML-N.
There is no guarantee that Syriza will be able to deliver on all of the promises that it has made, not least of all because of the strong opposition its economic plans will face from Greece’s international creditors.
Yet, despite the uncertainty, and attempts by the party’s rivals to use fear of this uncertainty as a means through which to undermine it’s popularity, Syriza has shown that, at a time when the hegemony of untrammelled capitalism and its political champions seems unassailable, it is possible for a party of the Left to mobilize a coalition of working class people, farmers, activists, academics, and others to capture the imagination of the public and seize power by doing nothing more than vowing to stand up for the rights of the disenchanted and dispossessed majority.
There is much that we can learn from this in Pakistan. Rather than conceding ground to the politics of fear and opportunism, there is a need to rally around truly progressive forces defined not by their desire for power at any cost, but their commitment to democracy, their opposition to the powerful, and their alignment with the poor and the marginalized. Movements and parties like this already exist, such as the Awami Workers Party, working with peasants, labourers, women, and minorities across the country with a view towards building a better, fairer, and more tolerant world. These are the forces that represent a genuine and radical alternative to the status quo, and it is to them that we must look when contemplating the future of Pakistan’s democracy.
For all their sound and fury, the PPP, PTI, and other mainstream opposition forces, as well as the military establishment, offer nothing more than the perpetuation of the established political order.
‘Liberals’ and others who remain oblivious to this fact and look to these quarters for change are short-sighted at best and actively mendacious at worst.