Pakistan’s growing democracy

August 14, 2011

Pakistani politics can be infuriating, petty, violent and often downright incomprehensible. So it is easy to miss what is actually quite a remarkable transformation in the way it governs itself. For perhaps the first time in its 64 years of existence, Pakistan is trying to figure out in detail how to make democracy work.

In a country traditionally dominated by the centralising authority of the military, the government which took office in 2008 is devolving power to the provinces. It is talking about breaking up Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and traditional recruiting ground of the army, by creating a new Seraiki province in south Punjab. It is extending some political rights into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by reforming the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations, a British colonial-era system designed to control rather than govern the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

In other words, it is introducing into the system mechanisms which, in theory at least, make it easier for people to negotiate their disputes with the state without taking up arms. By decentralising, it could also become harder for the army to launch a military coup (though it currently shows no inclination to do so), thus beginning the process of making democracy irreversible. And perhaps most importantly, it offers a way of accommodating Pakistan’s ethnic diversity.

As Pakistani columnist Mosharraf Zaidi wrote this month, “decentralisation has been, stealthily, one of the central and most definitive issues in Pakistani democracy.”  And whatever the petty and self-serving politics behind the various positions taken by different political parties, he wrote, “Pakistanis should be pleased that decentralisation represents the very heart of political discourse in Pakistan in 2011.”

Pakistan’s inability to accommodate ethnic diversity has a painful history.  At its worst, it led to the bitter civil war in 1971 when then East Pakistan, resentful of the domination of West Pakistan, broke away with Indian help to become the new state of Bangladesh.   But it is at its  most insidious not for what it fails to do, but for what it requires in its place — an over-reliance on a particular, but contested, interpretation of Islam as the only force which can unite Pakistan, and a need for real or imagined external enemies (it used to be India, now it extends to the United States) to pull the country together in a defensive huddle.

So for all its fitful and frustrating progress, the effort to build democracy is likely to be the real story of Pakistan in the coming year or so, ahead of elections due by 2013.  Rightly or wrongly, people believe the United States is preparing to leave the region, and attention is turning to domestic politics as the place where Pakistan’s future will be contested. Relations with the United States and India will of course continue to play a role, as will the Islamist militants waging a campaign of gun and bomb attacks inside Pakistan, but many of the influences that will shape that political contest are less obvious.

Among these is the separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest but least populated province,  where demands for outright independence appear to be gaining strength over aspirations for greater autonomy. The area is rich in resources, home to Gwadar port — meant to give China access to the Arabian Sea and Gulf oil supplies – and arguably more strategically significant than Afghanistan.  Although the insurgency has not yet come to dominate political discourse, it is an unpredictable wild card which could prompt some to call for greater, centralised, and therefore military control, and others for even more decentralisation.

The social transformation of Pakistan – it is becoming more conservative, its attitude to religion less pluralistic, its view of the west more hostile – also forms an incongruent backdrop to the transition to democracy. Whereas for example in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development party was able to occupy that socially conservative space to strengthen its hand against the secularist military, in Pakistan the situation is the reverse. The Pakistan Army, keen to find rallying call to unite the country, has been the main promoter of Islam; the secularists — or those few of them left who would still use that word – are in the  mainstream political parties. 

Meanwhile, the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has been unable to create a convincing and inspiring narrative on the reasoning behind decentralisation and democratisation as it fights its own dirty political battles, most recently in a tussle for power over the commercial capital Karachi with the  Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party in which several hundred people were killed.

The political elite continues to be defined by allegations of corruption (Pakistan was in 143rd place in last year’s Transparency International index) and by its dynastic and feudal traditions. The government faces repeated accusations of inept governance – accusations it counters by pointing to an accumulation of problems beyond its control, from international financial crisis, to devastating floods, to the war in Afghanistan. 

That absence of a convincing narrative has left space for others who as columnist Nadeem Paracha wrote wryly in Dawn,  proffer simplistic solutions to Pakistan’s many problems. If you talk to the religious parties calling for an end to corruption and the need for justice and welfare for the common man, it  is hard to disagree with them in principle, it is only in practice it becomes difficult to implement while also creating a tolerant and pluralist democracy.

Most recently, the liberal-leaning English-language media has been full of warnings about what they see as military backing for former cricketer turned political Imran Khan — who shares a political platform with the Jamaat Islami, Pakistan’s oldest religious party - to propel him to power in the next election.  In this scenario, the judiciary would be called upon to rid Pakistan of its corrupt politicians, clearing the way for Khan’s so far electorally unsuccessful Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party to edge ahead of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan’s reputation rests on him being seen as untainted by corruption.

“Clearly, Imran Khan is pinning his hopes on an army-judiciary move not just to oust the Zardari regime but to establish an interim government and permanent election commission and accountability process that sweeps aside the mainstream PPP and PMLN leaders, decimates their parties and paves the way for the PTI to emerge as the sole spokesman of Pakistan!”  veteran columnist Najam Sethi wrote in The Friday Times, complaining that such a “malafide” intervention would set back Pakistan’s messy transition to democracy, pit the mainstream parties against the army, and intensify ethnic rivalries.

For the outside world, these competing currents in Pakistan’s domestic politics will be crucial in determining whether it emerges as a more stable country.  But there may be little it can do to influence them constructively. The United States  does not have great track record of intervening to promote democracy in Pakistan - like many of the country’s chroniclers, its tendency has been to look to the military for quick and apparently simple solutions. And with world events happening at alarming speed, from financial crisis to Middle East uprisings, Washington is unlikely to have the attention span to deal with the delicate business of nurturing democracy.  As Britain discovered, with a certain amount of irony, democracy is messy and unpredictable - it had only just stepped in to  encourage Pakistan’s warring politicians to end violence in Karachi  when urban riots broke out at home.

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