Understanding Democracy in Pakistan

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Touqir Hussain[1]


(This piece is not about any particular government, be it civilian or military. Nor is the intention of this article to discount the success of the last elections and the emergence of a government that is clearly more purposeful, focused and serious about addressing Pakistan’s problems. The article is about democracy and Pakistan. It makes a point that Pakistan is facing grave problems, and if we are banking on democracy to solve them we have to ask ourselves in all honesty: can a troubled democracy help a troubled society? – Author)

Most nations do ask themselves, “Who are we, where do we want to go, and how?”  With the help of their intellectual capital and national leadership, and in the light of their historical experience, religion, culture and social values they often come up with some answers. These may not be perfect but serve as guiding principles to help them keep functioning, move forward and succeed.

There are many reasons why nations succeed, but these are all related in varying degrees to  whether they have sought and found answers to  these  questions. And then of course success also depends on the quality of governance, defined not just in terms of administrative efficiency, defense capability and economic achievement but also as the expression of people’s aspirations for freedom, equality and self realization. That means a governance rooted in democratic ideals, and a democracy anchored in good governance. Simply, because governance without democracy has no soul, and democracy without good governance is not alive; it does not go beyond politics. You may then have politics but no democracy.

Nations that have not even asked the above questions are effectively in a pre-democracy stage. Even if they may have had elections, had a functioning political process and some semblance of democratic institutions, their perceptions and understanding of democracy remain flawed. And they may get saddled with a system that looks like democracy but does not work like it. Democracy then ends up meaning different things to different people.  Politicians regard it as a means to come to power and hold on to it. The common man on the other hand seeks from it justice, security and economic opportunity that are all critical to his survival. And in the middle you have the educated class that has its own conception of democracy.

In emerging or aspiring democracies, like Pakistan, the educated class had traditionally been composed of liberals/secularists but has become much more diverse. In Pakistan there is now a whole range of conservatives also in this class, including the fundamentalists, Islamist modernists or modernist Islamists, with varying degrees of belief in the idea of secularism. Each of these segments of the educated class looks at democracy in a different way.

The liberal/secularist segment,  specially the more vocal or activist elements of it, which is Western educated or oriented,  is most passionate  about the Western liberal model focusing on freedom of choice,  free speech, civil liberties, independent judiciary, and of course elections. This segment is relatively better off economically and well-connected socially and is not engaged in a struggle for survival. That is why even though it may write eloquently about social ills, poverty and injustices it does not quite empathize with the depth of feelings of the poor and  and their expectations of democracy. It lives emotionally disconnected from the rest of the population and from their challenges of survival and means to cope with them, their societal attitudes and value system. It feels that “democracy” will take care of these issues. Elections have taken place, media is free as is the judiciary. And there is a constitution. So you have democracy. Just keep expressing yourself about issues of public concern and someone, somewhere is listening and will take care of them.

The secular/liberal class as a whole and Western oriented sections of it in particular are right in seeing a causal connection between democracy and progress in the advanced industrialized countries.  So they are justified in emulating a democratic political system and having high expectations of it. But they do not quite grasp the full picture. Most of them forget that the democracy that brought progress in the West was more than a political system. It was also a society’s organizing idea whose substance was equality of opportunity, fairness, rule of law, accountability, safeguarding of basic human rights and freedoms, gender equality and protection of minorities.

In sum, democracy’s core idea was humanism and the whole object of giving people the right to choose who will govern them on their behalf was to ensure living by this ideal. Otherwise what is the purpose behind the concept of self governance? Given a chance to self govern would people like to bring themselves to grief with their own policies? Certainly this was not the intent. Unless a nation shows this fundamental understanding of democracy and takes steps to put itself on the road to democracy it will never get there. It will keep moving in circles or going backwards.

Democracy is a European concept and evolved there with society, not independent of it, over a long period of time. We need to understand how it happened so that we have no illusions as to what democracy is and what it is not and what it takes to be democratic.

Democracy had advanced in Europe through complex developments. It essentially evolved as a political arm of the changing economic system and modernizing social architecture reflecting the rise of science and use of reason, and changes in the relationship between Church and the State and the place of religion in an individual’s life, etc. These changes had a reciprocal influence on the value system of Europeans, inciting individualism, liberal habits of mind, the idea of human self determination and progress. Political institutions had to adapt to these dual set of changes, in the social and economic order, and in values.  Ultimately the political system that emerged to ensure and advance the two was called democracy. To put it simply: social and economic structures, the values, and the political system all three had to be consistent with each other. Only then will democracy exist and work. Otherwise it will exist only in form or in fragments.

Here is why much of our secular/liberal class miss this point. The above conditions were achieved in the West over a long period and have now become a given fact. They are ensured at the grassroots level through strong local governments and an effective law enforcement and judicial system. The West now no longer struggles to achieve this. They have become such a permanent fixture of democracy that they have virtually become invisible. So the most visible feature of democracy for an outsider, specially coming from closed or authoritarian societies now struggling to democratize, is the free speech that overawes him through free media which has such an exhilarating presence in our lives now. And of course, elections and exercise of choice, something long denied to such observers in their own countries. No wonder their concept of democracy gets skewed. They come to believe in a liberal/secular illusion that democracy is just freedom of expression and freedom of choice and that the existence of formal democratic institutions will eventually evolve and perfect themselves through the normal hydraulics of politics and checks and balances.  We just need to be patient and wait.

But the reality is that despite having these freedoms and institutions the West worked hard at the perfection of democracy for more than two centuries with the combined efforts of politicians, statesmen, learned men outside  politics, moral critics and philosophers, and social reformers to create societies structured along democratic lines from bottom up. People did not leave it to the institutions. Institutions had to be perfected. And this perfection happened in tandem with the social and economic reforms and strengthening of the judicial system. And there were movements to that effect in Europe as well as America. We all have heard of the anti slavery campaign, progressive movement, struggle for the labour unions,  and the civil rights movement, just four of the landmarks in the growth of democracy in America. Not to mention the outstanding work done by the founding fathers who laid the foundations not only of the nation but also of democracy. It was creativity at work. And most recently there is a movement underway in many states to petition the Congress for a Constitutional amendment to take money out of politics. Of course on a lesser scale there is a not too successful modern day progressive movement underpinning the Obama Presidency.

There is no universal model of democracy. But certain minimum criteria has been universalized; and within that framework each society works out its own best system  based on its history, religion, culture, customs, traditions, social values and beliefs and concept of free speech.  Whereas in America democracy’s  hallmark is free speech, liberty, individualism, free market and a strong sentiment against government control and intervention, however, in Europe and in Canada it has a mix of social conscience and greater  government role. In other societies, following the Western model like Japan, there is no such thing as unrestrained free speech or individualism. In fact individualism is discouraged and capitalism enjoys government patronage. Turkey has its own version of democracy.  Singapore follows its own brand of liberal constitutionalism where there are limits even on political freedom. It happens to be one of the most self contented countries in the world[i]. But the end in all these societies is similar– to ensure the well being, happiness and self actualization of people.

The bottom line is that democracy is meaningless if it is not people focused and action oriented. And actions are instruments of policies— policies geared to the common good of the population that offer fair opportunities for self realization to the citizenry regardless of class, creed or color or their regional or linguistic identities. The best means to achieve that of course is to have a framework of free institutions, representative and accountable government, constitutionalism, and strong rule of law. That is where the efforts of the educated class in Pakistan and other aspiring democracies should focus; helping to create an interlocking and dynamic system of political and legal institutions, humanistic values, and economic and social structure that go with it.  That is democracy in action.

Democracy is therefore a struggle. But the efforts of the educated class are by no means sufficient by themselves. Their job is essentially to create an awareness, mobilize people and put pressure on the leadership. In doing so they end up as mediators between people and the leadership. In the ultimate analysis it is the leadership that has to do the heavy lifting since serious roadblocks to democracy can only be dismantled by political action. This needs strong action which in turn is not possible without the support of the people. Even if any particular government policy does not have support among people at least the leadership should have enough support and popularity that it can push through unpopular but right policies.

That is why it is critically important, especially in developing democracies facing serious challenges, that elections bring up a leadership whose strength rests on the force of ideas, integrity and commitment to the well being of the people and larger interests of the country. Only then will the leadership enjoy strong public support and confidence enabling the leader to take hard and unpopular decisions that are good for the nation but may not enjoy domestic consensus.

But a leader whose strength is limited only to electoral support will always live at the level of public opinion, susceptible to influence by this special interest or one pressure group or another, or street power of demagogues, and will be afraid of losing the vote, his life or his privileges. He or she will turn out be weak. An added influence will be the leader’s own or family’s financial or business interests or the interests of the ruling elite that he or she represents. That also makes for a weak leadership. And some leaders are so weak and insecure because of some or all of these factors that they will not take any action that may cause even a ripple of protest in the country like in Pakistan. They prove to be least effective in laying the foundations of democracy.

Look at Nehru and the whole range of founding fathers of India; their support went beyond the ballot because they were on the side of the people. They won independence for India and had passion to create a great India which trumped any personal or class interests. That enabled them to act as strong leaders. The same is the case with modern day Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil.

Democracy and Pakistan’s challenges

Let us focus on the specific case of Pakistan. There is no denying Pakistan has been drifting for decades lurching from one crisis to another, hovering between a precarious stability and an uneasy calm. As a consequence unresolved problems have kept mounting. The depressing reality is Pakistan now hosts, under one roof, a whole collection of issues that other societies have faced in ones or twos.  And these problems are a creation of both the army and civilian rules and have multiplied and got worse at the end of each regime compared to when it started.

Pakistan’s religion based nationalism may have provided a measure of social stability and national cohesion and helped it keep going but at a tragic cost. It turned on itself by feeding the army’s ambitions and strengthening the country’s regressive social structure and extremist trends. The army, the civilian politicians and Islamists became equal stakeholders in a debased political process weakening democratic institutions.

But Pakistan’s domestic order has not been the sole contributor to its challenges. Regional dynamics, big power interests, India and Afghanistan have all played a role. In fact, both Pakistan and Afghanistan, on their own and in serving the strategic purposes of the United States, back in the 80’s in the Jihad against the Soviets and now in fighting the war on terrorism, have played havoc with each other, becoming, in the end, tributaries and confluences of extremist influences that have radiated well beyond the region. Other Muslim countries have exploited Pakistan’s extremist infrastructure to further their own political and strategic agendas. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has triggered and continues to fuel sectarian tensions in Pakistan with destructive effects.

But both the US and Saudi Arabia have, over the decades, in exchange for looking after their interests, compensated Pakistan’s ruling establishment enough to help them keep the   country afloat and the population minimally satisfied, and thus maintain their hold on power so as to continue serving them.  Pakistan’s ruling elite along with the US and Saudi Arabia have thus become major stake holders in Pakistan’s survival for their own benefit.  The Chinese share their stakes but have played their game much better without alienating the people and neither harming Pakistan nor getting their own public image harmed.


With so many benefactors around to bail the country out aid has become an incentive for bad governance, and the elite care little about the consequences of their policies for the people and the country—policies which they and their external benefactors are the main beneficiaries of. In other words they benefited while people paid the cost. Over the decades  problems have kept mounting  like rising violence, intolerance, weak rule of law, endemic corruption, lack of social and economic justice, and of religious freedom, poor public services, inequities in land and income distribution, and social exclusion  of the vulnerable and the marginalized like women, the poor and the minorities. Is Pakistan’s democracy of which we saw an uninterrupted performance in the previous five years addressing or capable of addressing these challenges? If not, is this democracy “for the people” then?

The fact is people are serving democracy rather than democracy serving them. Much of the population is coping with the problems on its own. It has found solutions through its own efforts and with the help of the emerging civil society, part civil, part uncivil, including extremist organizations whose humanitarian and social welfare work fills part of the governance vacuum created by the same politicians who need to act against these extremists and their  acts of terrorism. But how can they? They lack moral and political strength to do so.

This being the state of affairs, Pakistanis, specially the educated class, majority of which are so passionate about democracy –as they should be–have to ask themselves if their efforts are remotely directed towards creating a true democratic  structure , and  having a leadership that is adequate to fulfill democratic ideals.  And whether the leadership has performed to win the hearts and minds of the people enabling it to take hard decisions to create conditions that make it possible to create a great society?

Alternative politics

People of Pakistan of course continue to have faith in democracy and do vote enthusiastically. Their participation in the 2013 elections, despite all the attendant security risks, was courageous and impressive. The credit should go to the political process in the country that has no doubt been advanced in the last decade thanks, in part to a reaction against the needless and utterly egregious coup by Musharaf in 1999. The two main parties have done well by reaching an understanding not to undermine each other as the army’s tool as they used to do in the past. By doing so in the past they had become not only a tool but also the victim of the army as their collaboration ended up not just destabilizing each other but civilian rule itself. They had thus become their own worst enemies. That seems to have changed which is good news. But while it has certainly improved the rules of politics its enduring effect on the quality of democracy remains to be seen in the future.

Meanwhile as long as democracy remains weak or ineffective the potential for disorder remains as there is so much social discontent around. There is a large body of disinherited and marginalized population including the confused and dispirited youth looking for desperate and transcendental solutions that cannot wait for the electoral cycle. So the population remains prone to seduction by demagoguery of extremists or opportunist politicians exploiting a whole range of grievances that have been released in Pakistan thanks to the media explosion. The ruling elite over the decades has failed to address these grievances; so all this unfulfilled energy is expressing itself negatively through extremism and paranoia of which obsessive nationalism are the most visible examples. The injection of religion into nationalism has turned it into ultra nationalism or Islamic nationalism[ii].

At a deeper level this reflects something more significant. With the technology and information revolution the propagation of ideas is no longer monopolized by the state or the intelligentsia. They are now available at the grassroots level making this truly an era of mass politics and activism. As a consequence the political thinking not just in Pakistan but in Muslim societies as a whole has come to reflect predominantly the values and assumptions of the masses, who are more traditional and religious than the elite, and of the disaffected youth whose anger finds an easier outlet in an ideology and politics of protest and rejection than in the non existing or perfunctory or in some cases fraudulent institutions of democratic change. The so called Arab Spring sums it all up. You can clearly see the Arab Spring is not being dominated by the secular/liberal class who are being given a good run for their money by the Islamists. And this seesaw contest may continue as we have seen in Egypt.

Speaking specifically of Pakistan there is on one hand democracy—much more credible and functional than in most Islamic countries but still weak and vulnerable–and on the other there is alternative politics, which bears a remote resemblance, as a religion based revisionism, to the turmoil in the Arab world.  These two waves are not reconciling in Pakistan.

Globalization and the media revolution has raised the political awareness of the poor and disposed but there are no opportunities or institutions for empowerment. The political class’s identification with their own interests and not with those of the poor and the lower middle classes has been fully exposed. Thus even if people from the lower social strata have elected the leadership they have lost confidence in its will and ability to help their cause and interests. The educated class has not been of much help to them either. Of course there have been remarkable individuals and institutions who are helping the poor, weak and the disadvantaged with their philanthropy and humanitarian, educational and social work through individual contribution or civil society. They are to be greatly commended but much more needs to be done.

Civil society can be a partner but never a substitute for government action in any country, particularly in societies facing serious nation and state building challenges that can only be addressed by thoughtful and planned political action and government policies including use of force. Indeed, Pakistan’s civil society itself is divided with the result that much good work being done by many good organizations is under threat from groups that do not agree–anti polio campaign being just one example.  The work of the private sector to fill the vacuum is not enough. A whole lot more needs to be done.

That is why the poor and the lower middle classes, educated and uneducated, young and old, remain discontented and there is an interest on their part in alternative politics. The mullah and petty community leaders and a host of Islamist activists may not get votes but arouse public anger and grievances against the ruling elite among these classes. They exploit a complex of issues, including local grievances, class consciousness, anti Americanism, and corrosive Western influences—anything that delegitimizes the elite and their support system by highlighting their disregard for the sovereignty and national interests of Pakistan and their perceived un-Islamic disposition. Anti Americanism thus serves two purposes: expresses itself against a supposedly anti Islam super power and a government that supports Washington.

Feudalism and the mal distribution of land and the attendant poverty, and urban unemployment, especially among the youth, have given particular resonance to this propaganda. In conditions of despair and frustration people can find easy solace and escape in the idea of a Sharia rule as an alternative. The more desperate among the poor have turned to extremism and terrorism. The feeling is that only a system that is morally superior to that of the ruling class and evokes divine sanction can perhaps help liberate the oppressed. This gives them the courage to rise and, for a few, even to blow themselves up.[iii]

Who speaks for the poor and their values in a developing democracy has therefore become important, whether we are talking of Pakistan or Afghanistan (where this happens to be part of the reason for the support of Taliban in certain Pashtun areas) or the so-called Arab Spring. That is why in the struggle for democracy in all these places religion has interloped into the resistance.  So you have a three way struggle going on in these societies– between the classes, between the liberals and the conservatives, and between the population as a whole and the system. And this struggle is not going to go away any time soon.

One side effect of alternative politics, at least in Pakistan, is that it is giving street power to demagogues thus weakening an already weak political leadership which is shying away from unpopular decisions for the fear that people led by these demagogues who have now the electronic media at their disposal may come out on the streets. Has demagoguery gone electronic? This leaves one wondering on whose side is this so called “free and vibrant” media which our liberal/secular class is so proud of.

Media—Free or simply unrestrained?

Are the avenues of free media and civil society being used effectively to promote true democracy in Pakistan? Yes the media is free but is it acting with responsibility, specially the electronic media. Is it debating the issues or just disputing or wrangling about them? Is it having a discussion or simply an altercation that gives vent to a cultural, religious, political and class divide. Heated arguments, half baked opinions, and emotional outbursts parading dangerous and even deranged ideas that make the sparks fly make a “good” program for electronic media purposes. This is what much of the commercial TV is about.

Today’s electronic media, especially the fast paced 24/7 mainstream commercial TV and social media, have distorted reality. Not just in Pakistan but globally. It brings information to people through emotions not through intellect. We thus gravitate towards a view or perspective of issues that focuses on the visual not the abstract, the intuitive not the reflective, and the transitory not the enduring, micro not the macro. Attention is episodic which makes it difficult to form a larger picture. Everybody has an opinion and that is often not his own. And opinion starts moving faster than knowledge.

All this has taken the contemplative element out of thinking about serious issues. Issues have become “stories” with a succession of images appealing to the emotion of the moment. There are, no doubt, also good discussions and programs on TV but they  are rare and get crowded out by bad ones which occupy not only much more viewing time  but much greater emotional space of ours.

Of course the print media in Pakistan, especially in English, is an exception where the standard compares well with international media but it is preaching to the choir. Hundreds of excellent Op-eds have been written on Malala but I wonder how much good they have done. Their reach may be to the educated class but the serious appeal has been limited largely to the inbred liberal/secular class and thus confined to an echo chamber.

The debate on national issues, whatever the medium,  has to break out to the entire nation–to other shades of opinion and beliefs, to policy makers, religious scholars and above all to the youth. And it is not going to be easy as what we are up against is not diversity in opinion or beliefs which is fine but divisive, exclusionary and extremist enclaves of opinion. And they are hard to bridge. And there is a section of the population that has come to harbor both extremes and are thus confused. That is making the emergence of a purposeful, focused, rational and honest national debate all the harder in Pakistan. So those who think it is just an expression of alternative points of view, a gift of our “free and vibrant media” and thus democracy in action, think again.

We need to provide a viable and credible alternative to commercial media. This is what European governments are doing by subsidizing autonomous public broadcasting corporations.  In America, though on a smaller scale, there is PBS and NPR. These European and American media organizations are not depending on advertising money and have no profit motive; so they can provide quality entertainment and news.

Finally we have to keep in mind that media and civil society by themselves cannot be the instruments of change but at best they can only facilitate and support the change. But if there  is a disconnect, as it is now in Pakistan,  between the agents of change , that is the government and the political leadership, the facilitators of change, that is the media and the civil society, and the focus of change, that is the people, then this will further impede efforts to change in Pakistan.


In all this talk of change, of course the subject of institutions always comes up. References have been made to a book published a year ago titled: “Why Nations Fail.”[iv] This book makes arguments about institutions and their role in the success or failure of nations which have great relevance for Pakistan and merit our attention. One of the findings of the book, based on well researched case studies, is that nations that succeed have a strong and inclusive institutional architecture. But when readers distill this message to a sound bite which suggests that to succeed we need to strengthen the institutions, they oversimplify the discourse. And even miss the point of the book.

Institutions exist in authoritarian as well as democratic societies and those in between where we more or less fall as a democracy in transition. Their purpose, orientation and substance is different in each system.  In the middle, where Pakistan is situated,   institutions are a hybrid being pulled in opposite directions between authoritarianism and democracy, and between extremism and moderation, and exclusivity and inclusivity.  So when we say let us strengthen the institutions we must be clear what we are talking about.

The fact is that institutions, especially in democracies or aspiring democracies like Pakistan, are not extraneous to society. They are product of a society: the way it is organized, how it addresses the challenges of state and nation building, and above all where the political power resides and to whose benefit. The institutions thus have an organic and reciprocal linkage with society reflecting as well as affecting its power structure, values, intellectual capital, and the organizing idea. They do not stand alone which you can fix and thus fix the society. Attempts to reform or strengthen one without changing the other will not work.

Pakistan’s problems have not been a lack of institutions but their trivialization.  Their subservience to centers of power and organized and more powerful social groups at the top, that leads to a weak rule of law;  and  their undermining by uncontrolled layers of militant Jihadist, sectarian, ethnic and insurgent outfits at the bottom has resulted in challenges to internal security and national sanity. The institutions thus lack not only autonomy and integrity but also capacity. But you cannot strengthen Pakistan’s institutions without addressing the substance of its society, and without taking into account its many fault lines, competing visions of national identity, religion and culture, and rising influence of extremism, intolerance, and religiosity that have weakened the institutions by putting conflicting demands on them.

The bottom line is that neither Pakistan nor its institutions are broken. This is both good and bad news. Institutions have the physical strength to perform on their own behalf and on the behalf of the centers of power but lack a moral capacity to perform on behalf of the people.  They still have some residual strength that protects Pakistan against failure but they resist reform and maintain the status quo.

Status quo vs Change

Democracy, as it exists now, thus ends up strengthening the status quo. And political parties are working hard at maintaining it. They are well entrenched. They have a vote bank. And the educated class, liberal/secular class specially but not exclusively, is shy of criticizing them for the fear that it may amount to challenging the “system”. This refrain has let the system continue. The system’s relevance is different for the politicians and different for the people. For the politicians it is the status quo and maintenance of their dominant social status. For the people, especially the liberal/secular class, it is democracy in evolution–it is felt that all it needs is time and it will mature. They apprehend that opposition to the system will be tantamount to being anti democratic. This view is partly incited by the political parties themselves but there are larger reasons for it. Pakistanis have suffered so much from democracy blackout for years due to army rule and they are so euphoric about civilian rule that they have come to define democracy solely in terms of civilian rule. Even those unimpressed with it feel that a democracy deficit is better than democracy blackout.

But those among the educated class, liberals and conservatives alike,  who uncritically accept what passes for democracy as a democracy are not the only offenders. There are some who are undermining democracy by promoting an extremist mindset. And there are others who want democracy as well as Sharia. They too in their own way are weakening democracy.[v]

But the believers in democracy do not seem to be concerned. They do recognize there are serious issues in the country and are even writing first rate Op-eds about them.  But they feel all they need to do is to have confidence in the newly found democracy, put up with the leadership for what it is but criticize the way it is governing. They do not realize that the issues that are affecting the governance are the same that are affecting the quality of democracy. And you cannot address one without the other.

But thanks mainly to the electronic and social media we have a very effervescent idea of democracy as if it was some kind of a spectator sport. So much so that rather than lament one of the most incompetent governments in the history of Pakistan we celebrated the completion of five years by the Zardari government.

I never quite understood what we were celebrating? That the army has not intervened? If so, we were only half right. Yes there was an uninterrupted civilian rule for five years but is civilian rule by definition a democratic one? You have to judge it by the more stringent criteria I have spelled out above. There were, no doubt, some important constitutional amendments, some of which were substantive—like strengthening federalism—but others were meant basically to remove some undemocratic provisions that had been inserted into the Constitution during Zia and Musharaf’s time. For now what they have basically done is redistributed power within the ruling establishment by shuffling the cards from the military to the civilians, to the Prime Minister from the President and from the Center to the Provinces. This has certainly been good for political parties and the parliamentary form of government but whether they are good for the people and thus democracy remains to be seen. Yes the legislative process has improved but laws by themselves do not constitute democracy—rule of law does.

The answer to the question of whether the army has accepted democracy and thus strengthened it is again mixed. Coups do not take place thoughtlessly in Pakistan. A lot of preparation goes into them, especially in preparing the public opinion for which they need to have a credible rationale. Here are the standard conditions or arguments in which military takeovers have taken place: excuse of civilians’ failure, sufficient time lag from the last coup, some public support, conditions of relative ease of governability of Pakistan, in other words absence of a serious crisis, and clear potential benefits to accrue from political power. Barring the first one no other condition was present in the five years of Zardari government– the script had been incomplete. Not to mention that the army had been under siege fighting security challenges and had at times been quite unpopular, at home and abroad. This is not to imply that it had wanted to take over but could not. The suggestion here is that we do not quite know if the army refrained from taking power because of commitment to democracy or simply because it could not do so.

The danger of army intervention may have receded but not banished forever. The fact is as long as the army remains committed to its present size, strategic ambitions and corporate interests its need to appropriate or influence political power will remain as will Pakistan’s need for the army, if it keeps living dangerously. The only way its ambitions can be tamed and its image as a savior of the last resort erased is by an outperforming civilian system that should be able to redefine the state and put the country on the road to progress and stability. But by remaining a security state you are judging the country’s accomplishments largely in terms of its defense capability and thus ceding ground to the army. Changing Pakistan is about changing the paradigm of the Pakistan idea, and about state and nation building.

Democracy and economic development

The relationship between democracy and economic development has been discussed by economists and political scientists for decades. And the findings are mixed. Whatever the co-relationship in other developing countries I feel that in the case of Pakistan, democracy may be a necessity for its economic development. In know economists among us have their own narrow focus on growth rate. And barring a few notable exceptions, they by and large tend to treat economics in isolation from political realities, and feel all Pakistan needs to focus on is to improve economic policies, raise the growth rate, and everything will fall in to place. Not only will Pakistan gain but its democracy as well as the rising middle class will contest power with the traditional political class. In other words democracy will follow economic development.

Economists by and large ignore that among the aspiring democracies feudal societies are the hardest to develop economically. I know our economists bristle at the mention of a feudal Pakistan. They say, and with good justification, that Pakistan’s economy is not feudal any longer and also cite expansive urbanization of Pakistan. But there are problems with this argument.

First, the urbanization in Pakistan is a mixed bag. Second, Pakistan’s economy may no longer be feudal but its politics certainly remains very much feudal, not just in terms of the majority of parliamentarians still being from the feudal class or of feudal extraction (by some accounts 70% but this figure may be a little on the high side) but also because of pervasive influence of the feudal mindset in politics, governance and law making.  So the interests and values of the feudal class continue to dominate our societal attitudes and perceptions of “the rights of man” or rule of law. In a feudal mindset we are not equal before law. And I am afraid the democracy as it exists in Pakistan, instead of dismantling this undemocratic cult, has reinforced it by giving the feudal class the major share in political power which they have used to the hilt to maintain their wealth and privileges, especially their non-taxpaying culture. In the last couple of decades the business elite have also joined the fray, enjoying select government patronage and exemptions. Not paying tax is not just a financial issue. It reflects a deeper issue–it validates inequality before law.

Economic policies and development are of course affected by all this as by   ethno-linguistic divisions, sectarian conflicts, competing visions of national identity, religious and cultural wars, extremism, and prospects for social disorder and political instability.  These conditions inhibit sustained economic activity by dampening business confidence and investment climate, specially affecting foreign direct investment, particularly important for a debt ridden economy with a low rate of savings and an abysmally low tax revenue.

Whatever economists may say, the serious challenges that Pakistan faces are not going to melt away with the onset of economic growth. Indeed the growth itself may remain elusive under the above conditions. How do you break this vicious circle? By democracy. Democracy is thus a necessity for Pakistan’s progress, and indeed for its survival, because it will provide values and institutions that can bridge Pakistan’s many fault lines, and by undercutting extremism it can promote modern education, and spirit of tolerance and  accommodation. And by establishing the primacy of civilian rule it may bring to fore strong leadership that could contest Pakistan’s regressive social structure and rectify its power imbalances. This will, in turn, enhance political stability, provide peaceful internal order and rule of law, and a level playing field. These are all critically needed for productive economic activity and investment.

Whatever the validity of the argument for other developing countries, as far as Pakistan is concerned, economic development and democracy are interdependent. Greater democratization, specially addressing the grievances of minority provinces—grievances of the people not of the feudal/tribal leaders– and better management of relations between the central and provincial governments, can help. Take the case of Baluchistan which is significant for Pakistan’s future economic prospects. It is rich in mineral resources that are strategically located near vital sea lanes and two oil-bearing regions, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Similarly, the sharing and harnessing of water resources for irrigation and hydroelectric power which are contentious issues between the central government and the provinces. Democracy can help pacify and conciliate Baluchistan and create improved relations not only between the center and provinces but also between Punjab and the minority provinces which will help address water issues.

Democracy will help Pakistan realize its full economic potential for which the country has all the ingredients but no credible plan of action by the people or the leadership to exploit the potential. Statements are not a plan. They are not even a policy. And they have a negative effect on our image internationally as constant refrain of high sounding but unrealistic wish lists with little relationship to ground realities only advertises lack of seriousness.


This piece is not about any particular government, be it civilian or military. Nor is the intention of this article to discount the success of the last elections and the emergence of a government that is clearly more purposeful, focused and serious about addressing Pakistan’s problems. The article is about democracy and Pakistan. It makes a point that Pakistan is facing grave problems, and if we are banking on democracy to solve them we have to ask ourselves in all honesty: can a troubled democracy help a troubled society?

At the heart of Pakistan’s problems are a complex of serious imbalances, disparities and conflicts– in political power, social structure, and in the relationship between provinces, the majority and the minorities, classes, ruling elite and the people, and different linguistic, sectarian and ethnic groups, and in the distribution of land, income and dispensation of justice.  Institutions that exist to mediate the differences either lack integrity or autonomy. There is, therefore, an inclination to resort to violence as an instrument of redressing the imbalances and wrongs. Once force becomes an acceptable way of settling differences over prolonged periods of weak rule of law it turns on itself and breeds its own imbalances and injustices. And the rule of law suffers.

And there is another problem.  Institutions such as  Islam/Islamists, feudalism/and the feudal dominated political class, and the army, that are either resisting change or are unenthusiastic or ambiguous about it are also serving some purpose by providing a national identity, unity, a surrogate national purpose, security and social stability to this troubled nation. They have been part of the problem as well as the solution. They are not without their constituency. With their class and corporate interests and ideology they have a stake in Pakistan’s survival but their script is only good for survival and not for progress. The nation may live on because of their vested interest but only as a handicapped entity.

As mentioned above, problems are solved by actions, actions that flow from policies, and policies that are part of a design, an organizing idea, and sense of purpose. If Pakistan is serious about fixing itself especially through democracy—as it should—the redefinition of   its security paradigm should be its central national priority. And for that we need the help of the armed forces. This is not to deny or minimize Pakistan’s serious security challenges or to downplay the important role Pakistan’s professional armed forces have played and are likely to continue playing. But they should not have monopoly over defining Pakistan’s security challenges which should be defined by the civil-military leadership together.  And the place they should occupy in the national priorities should be determined by the political and not the military leadership.

The military has to accept that the security challenges are not the only ones Pakistan is facing.  They need to step back and let the political leadership reorder national priorities. In fact they should facilitate this change by renouncing their patronage of the Islamic parties who have been their allies in promoting a religiously denominated security narrative and thus maintaining the status quo.

If Pakistan remains fixated on its external security specially the Jihdist conceptions of it, then it will not be able to defeat the religious militancy that has created mayhem internally. They will continue to have a cause to nourish on. Instead of aiming for the ultimate security externally, Pakistan should scale down its concerns and ambitions and focus internally. With its nuclear capability and a good professional army, Pakistan is secure enough. In fact external security is one of the few bright spots on the national achievements list of Pakistan and the military deserves credit for it. It is time to feel confident about our defense capability. But if we want to over reach and compete with India that is another matter. Then we should be ready to remain a crisis state which will continue to incite extremism. And that means we will not be able to address our challenges through democracy because democracy, instead of defeating extremism, might itself get defeated by extremism. The bottom line is extremism and democracy do not go together. We have to make a choice.

What does it take now to start the true democratic journey and to fix Pakistan? The preparation must begin with the following realization. First, the change has to be a total effort. Second, in the ultimate analysis societies change not because they have become democratic; they become democratic because they have decided to change. And of course democracy then provides a platform for sustained change and progress. If they try to become democratic without having changed they always struggle to become democratic or to change.

To proceed to the journey, as a minimum we need to seek answers to  the questions identified in the opening para and then create through the collective help of the education system, political action, media and the civil society such conditions, laws, habits of mind, political culture, and societal attitudes  that support the democratic  value system. And for that it is important that the democratization we aim for is inclusive and addresses the interests, aspirations and values of all the classes.

We, all too often, put the entire onus of change on leadership.  In reality nations can be unmade but not made by leaders alone. Leadership needs people not only for their participation in nation building but also for their support on major government initiatives, more so in this age of media when there are so many competing voices trying to influence public attitudes and opinions. The leader therefore not only leads but is also led or misled.  Unfortunately fused with religiosity and ultra nationalism, in part incited by the post 9/11 wars and in part by our decades of living dangerously, most people have a confused vision of Pakistan[vi].

So many grievances have come out in the open and are seeking expression through anti Americanism and the subordinate issue of drones. These issues are important but neither define nor exhaust the challenges Pakistan faces. And the trouble is by keeping them at the center of national concerns we are vulnerable to the world view of the very radical forces who have brought Pakistan to such a sorry pass. The radicals supported by the Islamic parties use these issues as a vehicle to bring Islam into the political arena and thus gain political mileage as they define Pakistan’s challenges as a struggle against policies and forces that are hostile to Islam such as America, its secular/liberal surrogates and the pro American policies.

The leadership has a choice–to address the grievances that are giving rise to the people’s alienation and seduction by extremism, or join this trend.  Removing grievances involves striking at the system which obviously goes against the grain of the leadership. So it has decided to join the crowd. But can you run with the hare and still hunt it? The leadership has done the same in its dealing with the army. For decades, the politicians, instead of challenging the security paradigm of the army and redefining national security so as to establish civilian supremacy, have found the easy route –join them if you cannot beat them. After all beating them requires outperforming them which again is possible only by overthrowing the system which neither the civilian nor the military leadership is prepared to do. Instead we have all decided to live off illusions and emotions: the population and the leadership, civilian and military alike.

Pakistan’s problem is that the radicals have no monopoly over radicalism. Politicians have also joined in. If people were not receptive there would have been no way any of these politicians, especially from Islamic parties, could make dangerous and false statements absolving the Taliban or the Jihadists or even sectarian organizations from any involvement or responsibility in the terrorist acts and make fraudulent statements like “no Muslim can act like that”.

People have to wake up and realize that the Islamic parties have been up to their neck in support of these outfits and now admitting that it is they who are committing acts of terrorism tarnishes these parties as well. Hence, these statements—made knowingly and purposely—that shifts the onus to outsiders, specially the US and India whose names that are already radioactive and thus easily believed to be the culprits. People should be able to see through this deception and make sure that such political forces, Islamist or whatever, are isolated. Once people reject them they will mend themselves. The most effective way to render them ineffective is not to listen to them. The electronic media can help by limiting their access.

It will perhaps take a generation to build a new Pakistan and this would have to be a total effort involving not just the leadership but also  the people of Pakistan, most importantly the young generation, the academia, and the intelligentsia, and the whole range of leaders of public opinion, religious scholars, political leadership and the civil-military bureaucracy. They should help wherever they are and in whatever capacity—in educational institutions, in the media, on the internet and through social media, in the mosques, and at home, and offices and through civil society. If nothing else just spread the word of a new mind set—progressive, moderate, peaceful, tolerant and open to modern ideas. Such a Pakistan will still be Islamic and nationalistic but we cannot build such a Pakistan if we are only nationalistic and Islamic especially if we are taking the cue from the Islamic parties and their radical co-hearts. We need to follow true and authentic Islam not the one packaged with social and foreign policy concerns that have a popular resonance but distort our great religion. And sadly they would have never had outreach but for our ratings crazy electronic media.

I know sections of the civil society within Pakistan are already speaking about it but their reach is limited only to their own kind. We need to break through the enclaves of conflicting and confusing visions of Pakistan. The debate should be across the barriers not within barricades. Pakistani diaspora[vii] should also join the effort. It is already active but needs enhanced coordination with the civil society in Pakistan, especially with educational institutions.

Of course much of the onus of change has to fall on the leadership. Its key role will be to have effective policies to build a democratic structure for which the first and foremost job is to initiate a change in the thinking process leading to a paradigm shift. It needs to have moral clarity as to where it stands and then it should show resolve regardless of public reaction. It may need to take some stern action especially in the beginning. It may be required, temporarily, to limit civil liberties and free speech and sacrifice some political interests, but in the end it is worth it.

Let the media, specially the electronic media, impose self-discipline or be ready to be disciplined. And there should be penalties and rewards for the media to rein it in and encourage responsible behavior. The government may consider turning Pakistan TV and radio into whole owned and operated public corporations funded largely by the government but fully autonomous. In Pakistan such media can be the best alternative to the commercial TV that has sprung up in the last decade.  Much of it is doing more harm than good.

Pakistan’s potential is good but the reality is bad. In order to realize its potential, reality has not only to be acknowledged but confronted and defeated. Pakistan is neither destined to fail nor born to succeed. Both failure and success are in the hands of Pakistanis. It is they who have to decide which way they want to go.  If they decide to succeed then democracy is the way to go about it. But Pakistan’s democratization and renewal is a long and hard struggle. So let the struggle begin, finally.

[1] The author is a former Ambassador. He teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University where he is also Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow

[i] ‘Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century’, Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels challenge the view that liberal democratic model is intrinsic to  good governance

[ii] Please see Pakistan:  a state or an Islamic Movement? Hassan Askari Rizvi Express Tribune –June 16, 2013

[iii] For some interesting observations on   the relationship between poverty and terrorism specially in a society with poor land distribution please see

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, by  Joe Studwell  (London: Profile Books, 2013).

[iv] Why Nations Fail: The origin of Power, Prosperity and Poverty

Daron Acemoglu  and James Robinson

Crown Business 2012

[v] As for the voices of the youth please see British Council Report Next Generation Goes to the Ballot Box ( April 2013)

[vi] There are many Pakistani organizations engaged in spreading such a word. Here is one in which the author is involved. It is called INDUS . Here is its website address