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The Dysfunctional Democracy

By | November 7, 2011

Poet and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, once said, “Avoid the democratic system of government, because the combined thinking of two hundred donkeys cannot produce the wisdom of one man.” Iqbal’s criticisms of popular Western democracies and arguments in favor of Islam in public life hold sway even today. In 1930, he proposed the creation of a state in northwestern India for Indian Muslims to the All-India Muslim League. Yet, on 14th August 1947 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the charismatic western educated lawyer and first Governor General of the young state of Pakistan, addressed the new constituent assembly with the words, “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

The clash between Iqbal and Jinnah resonates in Pakistan today. Western democracy, with its stated commitment to liberty, equality and representation has long seemed at odds with Islamic governments in the East. Pakistan in particular, was created on the basis of religion, but its founder hoped to establish a secular democratic state. In practice, Pakistan has vacillated between Islam and more secular forms of government, democracy and military rule. As a state at odds with its own identity, Pakistan has struggled to find a brand of democracy to fit the Pakistani context.

The Young and the Restless

In its initial years, Pakistan struggled to unite its two separate wings—East (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan—under a democratic framework. According to Christophe Jaffrelot, visiting professor at Princeton and former director of the Center for International Studies and Research, the Muslim League was the only party in existence in Pakistan, but lacked the clout and civil society support of India’s Congress Party. As a result, initial power remained in the hands of a few landlords and muhajirs, immigrants of West Pakistan. Yet the clear majority of Pakistan’s population resided in East Pakistan, separated by India. Any democracy meant that power would devolve to East, something the original Muslim League, largely made up of West Pakistanis, found unacceptable.

Jinnah died in 1948, leaving behind a country struggling with seemingly divergent ideologies, and separate wings. The instability of the new state, coupled with fear of India next door, led the Pakistani government to emphasize short-term goals, designed to keep themselves in power and immediate threats at bay. For the first ten years of its existence, then, Pakistan tried and failed to instill a democracy, largely because political parties were discouraged and the ethnic identity divided the land so strongly from the start.

Enlightened Moderation—and the Military

In addition to the ethnic struggle within the country, an existential threat from India and the dispute over Kashmir increased the role of security in public policy, establishing the military’s presence in Pakistani public life from the start. “It created the mindset of liberty afterwards, security before. Ayub Khan used this line when he took over in 1958,” says Jaffrelot. Further, Pakistan inherited two highly militarized and underdeveloped provinces. The North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan comprised fiercely independent tribes that had evaded British influence and resisted efforts for development. They remain hotbeds of resistance movements today. After alternating between two prime ministers in the 1990s, both of whom were ousted on charges of corruption, Pakistan embarked on its longest period of military rule under Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf remained popular despite his controversial takeover and appealed to many moderate Pakistanis. In 2004, Musharraf began his mantra of “enlightened moderation,” stating, “We must adopt a path of moderation and a conciliatory approach to fight the common belief that Islam is a religion of militancy in conflict with modernization, democracy and secularism.” Attempting to achieve this moderation as a military dictator seemed unlikely, yet his policies encouraging free media and open criticism seemed to support Musharraf’s benign image as a democratic reformer.

Coming Into its Own

Musharraf’s efforts, however, were complicated by societal structure. According to Anatol Lievin’s book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, a culture of patronage rules all institutions in Pakistan. Political parties, tribes, courts, civil services and police all function according to a system of patronage between individuals and loyalists, reducing the appeal of large scale democratic voting.

Some experts, however, view the systems of patronage as a contextualized adaptation to democratic processes. Ayesha Jalal, a historian and professor at Tufts University described to the HPR the traditional tribal Jirga: a council that normally resolves disputes within a village. Jalal argues that while jirga has its flaws, it can be adapted to the demands of a modern democratic state. As Jalal claims, the system’s existence as an informal alternative to the judiciary has produced a sense of ownership amongst the people.

The potential of systems like the jirga suggests that democracies must be allowed to grow out of their flaws. Jalal explained the described the interrupted flow of democracy in Pakistan, “We have always voted a government in, but never voted one out.” Democratically elected governments in Pakistan have been plagued by corruption and inefficiency, prompting takeovers by military rulers at every juncture. The consistent interruptions prevent accountability mechanisms from running the full cycle. In Jalal’s opinion, Pakistanis know what they want, but have not been given the forum to express themselves.

A New Era?

After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, Pakistanis heralded a new government with the largest election turnout in the country’s history. Today, rising prices, a refugee problem in the wake of military operations and natural disasters and growing suspicion between the United States and Pakistan after Bin Laden’s controversial capture, place this democratically elected government at yet another crucial juncture. The army seems to be stepping back from interfering, yet the intelligence agencies still influence public policy, especially in the wake of Bin Laden’s death.

In 2013, if there are no interruptions, Pakistan will have its next major election. Choosing between the existing political parties will be a challenge, since most have been tried, tested, and struggled. Yet, if history is any indicator, muddling through remains the best possible route. Even in Pakistan’s case where democracy is dysfunctional and manifests itself through unconventional means, the universal principles of participatory governance and rule according to the will of the people should be emphasized. According to Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Harvard University, people will mold the word “democracy” to their own ends unless the universal values of democracy need to be applied.

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