Home / Opinion / What Is The Real Threat To Democracy In Pakistan | Dr Niaz Murtaza

What Is The Real Threat To Democracy In Pakistan | Dr Niaz Murtaza

ISLAM and democracy are forever in danger in Pakistan. The danger to Islam is overblown by clerics, it being ensconced safely in millions of highly devoted hearts. Clerics may really be the main threat to it. The danger to democracy is real given past breaks.

The Panama leaks suddenly threatened a democracy which was looking secure, though not delivering much. Critics say the real threat to it is from poorly performing politicians and poorly managing leaders (their acronyms aptly being PPP and PML). But PPPs and PMLs endanger its quality, not existence. Critics say poor quality threatens existence by forcing ‘national guardians’ to act to prevent doom. But the army has struck not when politicians caused doom but when its twin (personal and institutional) interests were threatened. If imminent doom is their basis, (counter) coups should always occur during army rule since Pakistan came closest to doom during all army rules, not under elected rule.

The three long guardian rules (counting the Ayub-Yahya show as one) ended leaving Pakistan worse off than when they had intervened to save it from ‘doom’. Key local and global indexes say governance has improved since Musharraf, the last guardian. Pakistani history can roughly be divided into seven decade-long eras: the three martial laws, Bhutto era, 1990s, 1950s and post-2008. This is the first time where the economy and security are still improving eight years into the decade. Even the worst democracy is clearly better than the best autocracy.

Coup options have reduced but resistance to them has grown.
Is democracy’s existence unsafe again or is it consolidated enough to survive? Democracy gets consolidated when key actors warily accept it as the worst option except all others. Key-most are actors strong enough to end it directly, those in Pakistan being only the military and militants. The first beat the second so badly that its views are now irrelevant. But how disposed now is the mighty victor towards puny democracy? What lies in its bosom is difficult to discern for its stern, placid face reveals little. But snoopers say something is cooking in Pindi and odours reaching Islamabad raise fears there that democracy’s goose is being slow-cooked to perfection by GHQ chefs.

Ignoring gossip, I will use social science tools to analyse trends. I will focus on not the patriotic but irrelevant query of whether we are facing doom which justifies saviour action by ‘guardian’ generals, but relevant realpolitik queries regarding threats to twin army interests, its intervention options and likely resistance. Over time, coup options have reduced but resistance to them has grown, thus consolidating democracy, followed by the security establishment’s attempts to regain control.

The 1958 coup was at will, with no national, institutional or personal threat, since local and global distaste for coups was low. By the 1970s, global and local (due to the ’71 tragedy) aversion to them had grown. Thus, the military silently endured years of Bhutto’s attacks on its twin interests. The anger finally exploded into a coup. Zia invented 58-2(b), an easier option to tame civilians which reduced consolidation and was used to dismiss four prime ministers who did not threaten core interests but were not pliant enough on civilian issues. Nawaz Sharif defanged 58-2(b) and then targeted both core army interests, incurring a coup, which reinstated 58-2(b). But it was revoked in 2008.

This brings us to now. The twice-bitten PML poses neither core threat. It is not intruding on army core turf, only not ceding more civilian issues. The army chief is not being fired. But the guardians are reportedly still upset about everything: India, US, F-16s, CPEC. Given the aversion to coups and absence of core threats, an open coup is unlikely.

Post-58-2(b), the guardians have three other tools to tame PPPs and PMLs unwilling to cede endless turf: law, guile and agitation. Each has issues. NAB and the courts may not comply and can only remove guilty individuals, not the system. Getting mass PML desertions through a 1990-type ISI act seems infeasible. An Imran-led agitation on Panama can cause chaos without ensuring regime change or favourable election results later or a pliable regime even if PTI is aided to win. Panama justifies legal action against the guilty but not street agitation to enforce mob justice.

So, while guardians may have gripes despite wide powers, their options on core and non-core irritants are more limited and complex now, reflecting democratic consolidation. The bottom line is clear. Coups will occur only as a last resort when core interests are threatened and other options fail. When core interests are safe, other options will be used to encroach upon civilian matters.

So, reason suggests democracy will survive (but not thrive yet). But hearts have reasons which reason cannot fathom. Do our generals harbour such reasons?

The writer is a political economist.


Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2016


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