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Tue. December 06, 2022
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Can Democracy Survive in Pakistan This Time?

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By Harold A. Gould

What the impending September 6th presidential election in Pakistan is destined to determine is much more than the identity of the country’s next president. Three candidates are in the race: Asif Zardari (PPP), Nawaz Sharif (PML-S) and the PML-Q candidate. According to the prognostication of political analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, Mr. Zardari is destined to win this contest by virtue of the superior numerical position of his party (PPP). It is predicted that he may garner around 360 of the 702 votes contained in the electoral college. If this outcome proves to be the case, then Pakistan will have elected a chief of state by a completely secular democratic political process for the first time in decades.

No observer of the Pakistani political situation can be sanguine about the longer-term prospects for this latest experiment in popular government. Many are predicting that the divisions among the body politik, the destabilizing aura of radical Islamism, and the looming specter of the Pakistani army’s penchant over the years to terminate civilian government through martial law, will in the end render this endeavor moot.

However, there may be grounds for a greater measure of optimism than meets the eye. Too much pessimism may be emanating from the fact of dissension per se among the country’s political rivals. Critics may be forgetting that open politics in a constitutionally structured political system is by its very nature competitive. In the end, it is not whether partisanship and venality exist out there, but whether the process of competition is proving to be viable. India and the United States both attest to the validity of this contention.

If this indeed is the case, then perhaps there is more hope for Pakistanis democracy than meets the eye. Two factors appear to be crucial for a healthy outcome to the election. First, that what I have called the ‘South Asian political model’ prevails over the ‘unitary-state (i.e., authoritarian) model’, and second whether the Army remains in its barracks.

There are signs that the latter may prove to be the case. General Kiyani, the present COS has pledged to do so, and seems determined to keep his word. Should this prove to be the case, then there is hope for the future of democratic politics in Pakistan; hope that a civilian, democratically structured political arena will endure long enough for political bargaining and consensual politics to gradually take root and sort out the differences among the various interests which inevitably compete for political advantage in an open polity.

If the latter proves to be the case, it may turn out to be because the military elite --the generals and colonels-- have at long last decided that doing business in the growing domestic economy, fueled by the ramifying global market, constitutes a more favorable and stable source of material security and social status than meddling directly in politics. I base this hypothesis on the findings of scholars like Ms Ayesha Siddiqua, Mr. Husain Haqqani and others that the military, directly and indirectly own and control as much as forty percent of the Pakistani economy. Thus the real change that may have taken place in Pakistan is not that the military have been forced into a political corner as much as that the military itself has decided that life in the cantonments offers a better standard of living and a more tranquil lifestyle than knocking heads on the streets.

Should this prove to be true, then there may indeed be a chance for the ‘South Asia political model’ to take hold and eventually flourish in Pakistan.

As expected, the politically correct establishment has accused me of being too sanguine about the chances for democracy; that I am being "naive'; but I intend to stick to my guns on this, because I sense a change taking place in Pakistan which is bigger and broader than immediate events.

I know there will be serious conflicts between the power groups both at the national and the provincial level, but I see signs of PROCESS where all parties, despite the at times fiery rhetoric, appear to be groping for some kind of consensus that will keep the wolf of political disintegration and a resumption of authoritarianism away from the door. Even Sharif, despite his break with the PPP, is not advocating a return to political Armageddon; rather he searches for an alternative coalition that will enable the PML-N to have a bigger say in the big decisions, like restoring the judiciary, keeping the Army/ISI at bay, and tackling the big economic challenges.

It's not an 'either-or' proposition but a nuance-laden one. I take all this as a positive trend that is being very much driven by the rising demographics and influence of the middle-class and the impact of the remarkably independent media. If a consensus is reached whereby the judiciary resumes an independent role in the political process then I think Pakistan may indeed be on the way to the kind of democratic modus vivendi which India has been enjoying for the past sixty years.

All is by no means lost in Pakistan; even if there is an attempted resumption of military intervention or some other kind of extra-constitutional shenanigans, I predict that it will not get consolidated for long because of the now powerful democratic pressures emanating from the moderate, secular-oriented classes.

The outcome of any such attempted 'restoration' will resemble the fiasco that Mrs. Gandhi created in 1976 when her Emergency attempted to supplant the democratic process in India in 1976. It lasted a couple of years, then ignominiously collapsed; she was defeated in the elections that followed and India returned to the 'South Asia model' towards which I think Pakistan is at last trending.


Harold A. Gould is visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia and author of "Sikhs, Swamis, Students and Spies."

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