Democracy!

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Syed Mansoor

Considering the week that was with a major death anniversary, a national birthday and other such stuff, I have this persistent and irrepressible need to write something utterly profound. But then clarity is better than profundity. I grew up in the Pakistan of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed that was a different Pakistan. I left for the United States (US) in 1971 while Pakistan still had two wings. I did not come back until the beginning of the last decade. So I missed the entire Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq, and the alternating Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto periods. I left Pakistan during one military government and came back during another one.
I can only compare the Pakistan under Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf with that under Asif Ali Zardari and now Nawaz Sharif. I must admit that things seemed a lot better under military rulers. Even in terms of democratic trimmings, as far as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in the Punjab and the centre are concerned they do not seem to be functioning in a democratic fashion. It seems to me that under Musharraf the central and provincial governments were much more responsive to public opinion.
In this century, “elected” governments have ruled at the centre and in the provinces only after the Musharraf era. And sadly, their track record has not been too impressive. The major reason for their entirely lackluster performance is that both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh and the PML-N in Punjab have no effective opposition, and they can essentially do whatever they want. For a short while it seemed that Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) might emerge as a viable opposition party in the Punjab. But Khan has squandered whatever support and momentum he had built in 2012, and for all practical purposes he is now an irritant but he is longer a major player on the Pakistani political scene.
When I use the term “effective opposition” I mean a political opposition that is capable of winning an election and replacing the party presently in power. During the next election the PML-N will most likely win Punjab, and the PPP will once again win in Sindh, but there is an interesting political reality that must also be considered. Whenever a political party seems to be in an unassailable position and is expected to win one election after another, there emerges a most potent opposition to it. And that is the Pakistan army. Indeed the army functions as a political, entity and is at this time the only effective “loyal opposition” in the country that can actually replace the present political setup. The same was true under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Sharif the first time, and possibly now under Sharif the third time.
Like all political forces, the army has a major support base that is considerably privileged, and these privileges must be protected. And the army needs a viable and relatively “productive” national economy to support its expenses as well as those of its retirees. So far foreign military aid primarily from the United States has kept the army solvent during periods of economic downturn. The prerequisite for staying “in the barracks” is that financial support must remain constant, and the army must have its say on issues pertaining to national security. In the past these expectations seemed onerous, but now that the army is actually fighting against terrorists it does deserve full support from politicians as well as the general public.
It is easy to dismiss the army as a real political entity but until such time that political parties start behaving like true democratic entities, the army will always be there in in the background, ready to take over if, in its opinion, the system seems to be in danger of collapse. All politicians always believe that all is well as long as they are running the country and the army thinks the same way when a general is running the country. And of course the army thinks that political governments are totally corrupt, and always making a mess while politicians are convinced that an army government is always making a mess. Compared to elected governments, the major problem with army governments is that they cannot be replaced without some serious public protests with the possibility of violence. For elected government there is always a possibility of a transfer of power through the ballot box. But then the electoral longevity of Putin, Mugabe and Erdogan should also be remembered in this context.
When I mention that our political parties are not quite democratic, I don’t really have to explain myself. We have PML-N at the centre and in the Punjab totally controlled by two brothers, and with their children lurking in the background getting ready to take over. The PPP is being run by the grandson of Bhutto under the tutelage of Bhutto’s son-in-law. The PTI is Imran Khan, just as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement is Altaf Hussain. You remove the Sharifs, the Bhutto-Zardaris, Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan, and these four parties will collapse just as the official Muslim Leagues collapsed after the military dictators supporting them left the scene. Interestingly, the only political party in Pakistan with a truly democratic infrastructure is the Jamaat-e-Islami.
After having been around for almost as long as Pakistan, I am starting to lose hope that we will have a functioning democracy in Pakistan in my lifetime. No, I don’t think that even under the rosiest scenario Pakistan will ever become a “secular” country. The best I suppose we can hope for is a more “plural” system where different religious groups will live under the full protection of the law and exercise the rights promised to them under the constitution. As far as religious extremism is concerned, it will subside once the people of this country become more educated and the standard of living rises to more acceptable levels. About corruption, God knows best.