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In the Name of Democracy

Written by Dr. Moonis Ahmar  •  Cover Stories  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

As Pakistan vacillates between military rule and civilian government, what end of the spectrum will it settle on?

Some people consider it a miracle, others say it’s a blessing in disguise and the rest term it as the most painful era in the history of Pakistan. The completion of the five-year tenure of a civilian democratic government in the country, elected as a result of the February 2008 elections, is being celebrated. However, several questions arise regarding the performance of the so-called democratic era of Pakistan. Why is it that in the name of democracy, this civilian government plunged its people in a state of economic hardship, terrorism and rampant corruption? Should the people have tolerated all these enormous ordeals and the failing status of their country just for the sake of democracy? Can the forthcoming elections, if held, bring a qualitative change in the socio, economic and political conditions of the people or is it expected to worsen the situation in the days to come?

Out of Pakistan’s 66-year history, the country has been under military and quasi-military rule for around 30 years. The remaining 36 years were governed by civilian governments but under the shadow of the military and intelligence agencies. Even the most powerful civilian government of Z.A. Bhutto failed to curb the military’s influence. Following the civil disobedience movement, Army Chief of Staff General Zia-ul-Haq, toppled Bhutto’s government. The movement was launched by the Pakistan National Alliance in response to the alleged poll rigging of the March 1977 general elections by the PPP regime.

Post-1972, Pakistan had the opportunity to strengthen civilian democratic rule but politicians failed to understand that while seeking legitimacy and credit, it was imperative to provide good governance, accountability and rule of law. All the civilian governments ranging from Z. A. Bhttto, to Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Yusuf Raza Gilani and Pervez Ashraf will be remembered in history as incompetent, corrupt, ruthless, vindictive, manipulative and apathetic governments. When President Zardari and PML (N) leader Nawaz Sharif tout their success in helping complete five years of a “democratic, civilian” government, the people of Pakistan have learnt to take it with a pinch of salt. The so-called democratic governments have had five years to deliver but opinion polls illustrate a rise in public frustration and terrorism thus contradicting political claims of success. The rule of law, good governance and accountability remained a low priority for the civilian-democratic rulers of Pakistan. Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) also issued a hefty report, providing reams of evidence of mega corruption scandals within Pakistan’s current government structure. The hearings and verdicts of the Supreme Court in the last four years also speak of volumes of corruption and nepotism on the part of the PPP led government.

Democracy has never been fully practised in Pakistan. Power hungry politicians have wreaked havoc in state institutions ranging from Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Railways, Steel Mills and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), all at the expense of the common man. In the last five years, the PPP-led government borrowed 8 trillion rupees from different banks and financial lending institutions, including the State Bank. Foreign debt, which stood at 36 billion dollars in early 2008 is now 60 billion dollars. The value of the rupee versus US$ which was PKR60 in early 2007, now stands at PKR100. Foreign exchange reserves, which should have been on the rise have almost depleted with the State Bank recording only $8.7 billion. Corruption amounting to trillions of rupees in the last five years has been a source of embarrassment and shame for Pakistan, internationally. Prices of essential commodities have more than doubled over the last five years and the periodic increase in government salaries has skyrocketed inflation. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, public sector universities are unable to pay salaries to their employees and teachers on time. With such a hopeless performance of the PPP-led government, does it make sense to take pride in the false notion of  completing the 5 year term of a democratic, civilian government?

While the notion of democracy is contested, many commentators in Pakistan wonder whether given the poor performance of civilian-democratic governments, the people of Pakistan were better off during military regimes? As compared to their civilian counterparts, two critical things, which are controlled by military regimes, whether under Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf, are price control and law and order. One can do statistical research to compare the performance of military and civilian regimes in Pakistan since 1947 till today. Military regimes are, however, blamed of deepening ethnic and sectarian conflicts, suppressing their opponents brutally and losing wars and territories. Pakistan lost the 1971 war with India when the military was in power. Pakistan also lost Kargil and Siachen under military rule and the military establishment in order to neutralize its political opponents, patronized ethnic, sectarian and jihadi groups. In terms of performance, both civilian and military regimes have been unable to deliver successfully due to structural inadequacies within the leadership of Pakistan.

Four major reasons are responsible for the failure of civilian governments in Pakistan. First is the lack of educated, professional, honest and enlightened politicians. Secondly, political traits of greed, power, incompetency and opportunism have molded career diplomats who often find themselves in positions of power and promptly resort to abusing the system. Third, the military has historically, and consciously, refused to support political pluralism and democratic institutions thus preventing the introduction and continuation of any cohesive political framework. Finally, the failure of politicians to develop a culture of tolerance has ripped the social fabric of Pakistan. While one can blame the tribal and feudal culture, religious dogmatism, social backwardness and illiteracy as major causes of Pakistan’s deterioration into a failing state, it is actually the mindset of politicians which is responsible for betraying the people of this great nation.

Pakistan, in view of its serious fault lines, cannot afford the luxury of bad democracy. Certainly, parliamentary democracy in its present form has failed in Pakistan and serious questions must be raised regarding which political system is best suited to its peculiar socio-political make-up. 


Dr. Moonis Ahmar is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi and Director, Program on Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.

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