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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This is one of the best pieces that I have seen on the current situation. The analysis is objective and presented in clear terms unlike many who beat about the bush. In all the muck thrown around one tends to forget that the government, as you put it,’is introducing into the system mechanisms’ that will help in the long run. We only hope that the military does not intervene for once and allows the democratic process to go through the growing phase on its own.

Posted by Naushadshafkat | Report as abusive

Excellent analysis of Pakistan’s political landscape and democratic progress.

Happy Independence Day! Pakistan zindabad.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

Keeping up democracy is the way to go. Corruption is always there and it is not unique to Pakistan alone. At least the electoral process gives people a chance to oust people from power. It is a process similar to sifting. It takes many years to mature. Pakistan’s military was propped up and strengthened by the cold war powers. Now the same powers are finding themselves in the opposite camp. in this scenario, Pakistan’s military does not have much muscle power to thrust its way through, like it did before. It managed to control the nation by pushing itself to the fore front of super power battles. Now that need is lost. Therefore Pakistan’s democracy has the best chance to grow and thrive. Mullahs and their political attempts have never succeeded in Pakistan. The voters have always rejected their overtures. Just keep at it. It will help the military go back to the barracks and submit to the civilian authority. And it will help come out of the unnecessary paranoia about neighbors. Good luck.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

I admit performance of the PPP government was not ideal, but it has set new standards ofpolitics in a feudal society. Millions of hardcore poor have been awarded by employee’s stock scheme. First time in the history of Pakistan the poor workers became partner in the profit oforganization. Countless homeless got free piece of land for a shelter. Education, first time in history got in to access of underprivileged. The bureaucracy became answerable to people and first time traditional power centre shifted from feudal to masses. As people got voices and realization of their right, the democracy became a platform where they can share power. This support base is purely an outcome of party performance and pro-poor policies which still makes its major vote-bank. This party does not has any direct conflict with Socialists, rather it acts in their support for secular, liberal and more equitable society.

Posted by sadiarzv | Report as abusive

I have been saying this forever. Thank you!

Pakistan needs to be decentralized and Punjab needs to be broken up. Just imagine what would have happened to India if they hadn’t broken up their large regions into smaller states. Yet, in Pakistan, the Punjabis insists on keeping the Seraiki belt inside Punjab. I suspect it’s for no reason other than political power.

The day Punjab becomes a more equal part of the federation is the day Pakistan starts moving towards becoming a functional state. Nothing would be better for them than breaking up Punjab.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

Yes. The same challenge had to be faced by us just after independence of India. With the possibility of huge Hindi geography against smaller ethinic states, the central government cleverly divided the large Hindi heartland into 4 states (UP,Bihar,Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) which eventually lead to relative decline of Hindi chauvinism and created a more common brotherhood among Indians. Although most of the Prime ministers came from UP (Hindi Heartland) and ruled most part of Indian history since independence, India was able to avoid tyranny of majority with respect to language. Today Hindi with its own accents (it had numerous accents from kashmir to ooty in Tamil Nadu and words taken from every language that Hindi has become to India what English had become to the world). In any case, time must not be lost by Pakistan’s MNA to carve out a seperate province from Punjab and in my opinion this does a greater good for pakistan. Although I believe that devolution of powers to lower political order is more important, this is one big positive step if it is actually taken.
kEiThz, if you are amused by the reason why you don’t find many Indians these days in this blog. Most, in my opinion, are tensely waiting with fingers crossed on what happens to the Lokpal Movement headed by Anna hazare which is historical in every sense of the word. Most of our focus is centered around that. We are hoping against hope that our Legislature pass strong, wide and autonomous Lokpal (Act against corruption) to rid our country the biggest disease of corruption in public life, which is single most hazard that is the obstacle to our growth.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive