Will Obama’s victory boost democracy in Pakistan?

November 6, 2008

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In his new book about the Pakistan Army, “War, Coups and Terror”, Brian Cloughley recounts how the British general, the Duke of Wellington,  responded to democracy in his first cabinet meeting as prime minister: ”An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”

The story is told as part of an argument about why the Pakistan Army has never been particularly successful at running the country.

“All Pakistan’s army coups have been bloodless, successful and popular – but popular only for a while,” writes Cloughley. “The trouble is that military people are usually quite good at running large organisations, even civilian ones, but generally fail to understand politics and government, and the give-and-take so necessary in that esoteric world.”

That idea is very much in vogue in Pakistan. Former president Pervez Musharraf has been forced to resign by a new civilian government, and Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has pledged to keep the military out of politics. 

But how long will this idea hold? In a country which has been ruled by the army for much of its life, the possibility of a military coup will always be higher than in a country where democratic institutions have had time to establish themselves over decades or over centuries. On top of this, the fledging civilian government ushered in by elections in February faces the multiple challenges of near-economic collapse, the possibility of having to adopt unpopular measures prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, Islamist militancy and frequent missile attacks delivered by U.S. drones inside Pakistani territory.

All that makes its democracy fragile, and Barack Obama’s presidential election victory all the more important for those who see it as a triumph of the democratic process over decades of institutionalised prejudice. (Most analysts, at least temporarily, have set aside their anxieties about Obama’s pre-election pledge to go after al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan.)

“Pakistan too has to understand that a different mood now prevails in Washington,” the Dawn newspaper says in an editorial. ”There will be a clear tendency on the part of our patrons to pour money into democracy as opposed to autocracy.”

“More generally too, Obama can inspire us,” says an editorial in Pakistan’s The News. ”The fact is, Americans have made a historic choice, and not only because they have elected an African-American man to the White House. They have opted for youth, globalisation, diversity, diplomacy, and global integration, instead of age, isolationism, Cold War-era partisanship, and secrecy. They have embraced the 21st century, and left behind the twentieth.

“Pakistan must also look to the future with the rest of the world. It should reposition itself as a trade and economic hub, an energy corridor, an agent of change in the Muslim world, leaving behind its roles as India’s long-time rival and America’s faithful stooge. In this goal, Pakistan will find in Obama a supportive and reasonable ally … As such, he might be the change we need.”

Pakistani defence analyst Shireen Mazari pours cold water on this optimism in another editorial in The News. “We are certainly overdosing on the U.S. these days. As if their increased drone attacks against Pakistani civilians were not bad enough, we have had to suffer the excess of the Pakistani media’s coverage of the US elections – which in the end will really not alter our fate vis a vis U.S. policies and may make it worse,” she writes.

“When will it become clear to our ruling elite that the U.S. is a hostile, if not an enemy state?” she asks. Islamabad, she says, should see the change of administration as “a small window of opportunity” to stand up to the United States, protesting against drone attacks by suspending supply lines for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and telling U.S. military personnel to leave Pakistan.

So will Obama’s victory inspire a “yes we can” brand of euphoria that will carry Pakistan’s democracy along onto firmer ground? Or will realpolitik kick in, perhaps sooner than anyone expects?

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