Home / Opinion / Has Democracy Failed in Pakistan? Not Quite | Aamir Butt
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Has Democracy Failed in Pakistan? Not Quite | Aamir Butt

‘Oh democracy has failed in Pakistan and military rule has been better”, is a common thought prevalent among Pakistanis. The idea is a fallacy and the reason for this misconception is twofold:

1. The mistaken belief that democratic rule should solve all of Pakistan’s problems within 2 years.

2. Democracy has actually been tried in Pakistan.

The discussion about no 1 is not required because it is rather daft to expect that chronic problems of over-population, poverty, power, religious fanaticism etc can be solved within months or even ever by democracy, so I will leave it for now but would like to discuss if there ever was a genuine experiment with democracy in the history of Pakistan.

And before we do that let us have a brief stroll through the history of Pakistan:

Pakistan came into being in August 1947. It was created by a party called Muslim League which though had existed since 1906 had only started demanding Pakistan in 1940. The ML never was a true political party of the masses. So much so that in 1937 elections, the first western style elections in India for self rule in provinces, the League did not even have any local branches in major provinces like Bengal and created parliamentary boards (ad-hoc) to take part! After its disastrous performance in the elections provincial ML chapters were established but instead of grass root level work ML decided to recruit ready-made local politicians and thus convinced Punjabi feudal and Bengali businessmen to join it. Once Pakistan was achieved ML found that the majority of her top leaders were from areas that were now in India and thus had no local constituencies in what was Pakistan. As a result, these leaders had little interest in developing real democracy in Pakistan.  As a result neither were any national elections held nor did they agree on a democratic constitution (or even any constitution) for Pakistan. And when they did manage to form some sort of constitution in 1956 it lasted only a few months and before any elections could be held General Ayub Khan proclaimed martial law and cancelled the constitution. In the 10 years or so that Ayub was in power he more or less destroyed any chances for Pakistan to become a real democracy. The establishment of democratic institutions was suppressed and the only route for politicians to enter politics was through sleeping with the military and hence that is how ZA Bhutto started his political career. Ayub was followed by the disastrous couple of years under Yahya which led to a civil war and separation of Eastern Wing and through this the Punjabis managed to solve the issue of dealing with a Bengali majority in a united Pakistan. While Bhutto did have some democratic pretences his paranoid personality prevented him from working to establish real democracy in Pakistan and instead he tried to appease mullah and military which eventually considered him as a threat and got rid of him. Enter General Zia ul Haq for another 10 plus years of military rule, and while Ayub had more or less destroyed any chance of Pakistan becoming a democracy, he had at least tried to make Pakistan modern and progressive but Zia, while putting in the last few nails in the coffin of democracy also proceeded to destroy any chance of Pakistan becoming a modern, progressive and secular nation leaving behind a medieval theocracy with rules and laws more suited to the 10th rather than the 20th century! The period since then has seen a few short spells of pseudo-democracies under PP or ML-N as well as another long spell of martial law by Mush.

Now the question is why do I consider that Pakistan has never really had any real democracy? And here the issue is that it is thought that to qualify as a democracy a state has to fulfil just one criteria, which is that it should hold elections and thus elect its government – this is a misconception. While elections are an essential component of democracy they are not the sole tick-box for it. For besides elections a democracy needs to have:

1. Democratic institutions

2. A constitution that promotes democracy

3. And a culture of democracy

And sadly, none of the above three exists in Pakistan.

As I have mentioned before, the party that made Pakistan was never a political party in the real democratic sense, and remained so after Pakistan. The other parties that were active in political field were based either on religion or ethnicity. ZAB’s PPP was and more or less still remains the only national party that had workers at the grass root levels but was hampered by ZAB’s personality issues. And while many would disagree with me I feel Pakistan’s best chance at becoming a democratic nation was Benazir’s first government. For all her faults and failures BB was not a first generation feudal like her father, was intelligent and highly educated, had been steadfast under military persecution and above all had the ability to forgive those who had done her wrong. But she simply had too much stacked against her. Still, in the end, her enemies had to physically eliminate her, something that sealed Pakistan’s fate for good.

So what do we have now? Well, the military controls Pakistan’s foreign and strategic affairs directly. It also controls the economy indirectly leaving the politicians, even if they are elected with just enough cash which can only be used to enrich themselves. Political institutes do not exist, as we can see, ZAB and present PM both entered politics through the patronage of military dictators and were/can be eliminated by the military whenever it feels like. The constitution, though given the whitewash of democracy has been totally hamstrung by the religious laws inserted in it and the judiciary is either compliant with the non-democratic, theocratic laws or is so scared of the mullah and military that it does not dare to oppose them.

And while it is essential in a democracy to have all citizens constitutionally equal and having equal access to power this is legally blocked by Islam being the state religion and non-Muslims not appoint able to the posts of President, Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff.

There is no culture of democracy among the population, as mentioned before many are critical of the record of democratic governments (democratic only as far as being elected) and consider this as a flaw of democracy, interestingly the same refuse to accept that the widespread atrocities committed in the name of religion should be blamed on religion and thus do not allow the same defence to democracy!

The prevalence of religion in the society is a further hurdle to develop cultural democracy as it was not practiced in the times of the Prophet and thus is considered unnecessary due to the widespread misconception that Islam was completed to perfection in 632 AD and does not need to evolve or improve.

Another major hurdle is that while Pakistan came into being as a federation of diverse ethnic units, the military and militarized politicians have made it into a centralized state where power is held by Punjabi and Urdu speakers and Sandhi, Balochi, Pakhton, Saraiki etc. are kept out of power. No institution like the US senate exists to protect the ethnic minorities from being abused by the Punjabi majority which is prevalent in both military and political spheres.

Given the above situation I do not agree with the belief that democracy has failed in Pakistan. In my opinion, democracy has never been tried in Pakistan. The few half hearted attempts at it were sabotaged by the military or the military-mullah alliance and something that has never been tried cannot be called a failure.

And thus while we can safely conclude that the military rule has been a disaster for Pakistan we cannot pass any judgment as to how Pakistan would have fared under democracy for we have no evidence to support such predictions.

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One comment

  1. Muhammad Nabi Ullah

    Great article But must mention the role of Shiekh Rasheed type politician and Dr Danish type anchors who want to drag Army in politics again.

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