Democracy in Pakistan

Elections are an important virtue of government, but they are not the only virtue. Democracy does not end with the ballot, it begins there.
Governments should be judged by yardsticks related to constitutional liberalism as well. Despite the limited political choice they offer, countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand provide a better environment for the life, liberty and happiness of their citizens than do illiberal, sham, democracies like Slovakia, Ghana and Pakistan under their elected governments.
Constitutional Liberalism has led to democracy everywhere, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. In fact, democratically elected regimes in the third world generally ignore constitutional limits on their powers, deprive the citizens of their basic rights and freedoms and, in the process, open the door to military rule as has happened several times in Pakistan.
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FOR RULERS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES LIKE PAKISTAN, DEMOCRACY IS A CHEWING GUM FOR THE PEOPLE, TO GO ON CHEWING……A SWEET YET USELESS TASTE

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by Roedad Khan

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In the West, democracy means liberal democracy – a political system, prevailing in a free and independent country, marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by Rule of Law, separation of powers, independent judiciary, the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, sanctity of contract and property etc.

This bundle of freedoms called constitutional liberalism – is not synonymous with democracy and is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. For much of modern history what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. Magna Carta, Rule of Law, Habeas Corpus, are all expressions of constitutional liberalism not democracy. During the 19th century most European countries went through the phase of liberalization long before they became democratic.

British rule in India meant not democracy but constitutional liberalism – Rule of Law, independent judiciary, Habeas Corpus, fair administration, merit system etc. For 156 years until July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by the British Crown through an appointed Governor General. Until 1991, it never held a meaningful election, but its government epitomized constitutional liberalism, protecting its citizen’s basic rights and administering a fair judicial system and bureaucracy.

Elections are an important virtue of government, but they are not the only virtue. Democracy does not end with the ballot, it begins there. Governments should be judged by yardsticks related to constitutional liberalism as well. Despite the limited political choice they offer, countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand provide a better environment for the life, liberty and happiness of their citizens than do illiberal, sham, democracies like Slovakia, Ghana and Pakistan under their elected governments. Constitutional Liberalism has led to democracy everywhere, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. In fact, democratically elected regimes in the third world generally ignore constitutional limits on their powers, deprive the citizens of their basic rights and freedoms and, in the process, open the door to military rule as has happened several times in Pakistan.

Eleven years down the line, in the attempt to build “pure democracy” this is what we get: a spurious democracy brokered in Washington, an accidental President facing corruption and criminal charges, a rubber stamp parliament, a figurehead Prime Minister and his corrupt ministers, Potemkin villages dotted all over the country, the nation’s army at war with its own people; flagrant violation of our air space and national sovereignty by US aircraft, resulting in the killing of innocent men, women and children. No protest by our democratic government, no expression of remorse by our coalition partner in the so-called war on terror, no regret. The State of the Federation is chilling. It would stun someone who went to sleep soon after Independence Day in 1947 and awakened in the present.

No wonder, people have lost faith in the democratic process; elections are rigged; votes are purchased; known corrupt people; tax evaders; and smugglers are foisted upon a poor, illiterate electorate, unable to make an informed political choice, and then sworn in as Ministers. Elections throw up not the best, not the fittest, not the most deserving, but the scum of the community only because they are the richest or favorites of the people in power.

To appreciate the full bouquet of challenges that “Democracy” is facing in Pakistan, look no further than Islamabad. Today Islamabad represents a Pakistan which has lost its independence, a country which has not left the feudal – bureaucratic state of the colonial era; it still awaits the blood of a true emancipating Revolution. Today we Pakistanis would benefit from looking in a mirror and observing the shock of not recognizing what we have become. Pakistan is not the country it was eleven years ago. Back then, the country was settled, stable, democratic and free.

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Today, Pakistan is neither sovereign nor independent. It is a “rentier state”, an American lackey, ill-led, ill-governed by a corrupt, power-hungry junta supported by Washington.

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 How can democracy take roots in such a hostile environment? There can be no democracy, liberal or illiberal, in a country, like Pakistan, which has lost its independence and sovereignty.

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How can you have democracy in a country where people do not rule and the sovereign power of the state resides elsewhere? “We, the People”, are the three most important words in the America constitution. “We, the People”, is a phrase alien to Islamabad.

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The idea that you can just hold elections while everything remains colonial, feudal and medieval, means you won’t get democracy but some perversion of it. Elections are necessary but not sufficient. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Creating a democracy requires a free and independent country, an inviolable constitution, a sustained commitment of time and money to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive branch accountable to the parliament, a powerful and competent legislature answerable to the electorate, a strong neutral judiciary, and a free press. To assume that a popular vote will automatically bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Pakistan to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in our history: a short-lived period of corrupt, civilian rule, a descent into chaos and then army intervention.

With General Musharraf’s exit, we thought we had reached the summit. Alas! The ascent of one ridge simply revealed the next daunting challenge. Before he left the stage in disgrace, Musharraf turned over the car keys, under a deal, to those who had robbed and plundered this poor country. No wonder, his policies remain unchanged. Outside atmospherics, so little has changed in foreign policy, war in Waziristan and relationship with America. It took the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan an agonizingly long period to reverse the dictator’s order and restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhary and other deposed Judges. He did so, in the early hours of the morning, only when lakhs of people threatened to march on Islamabad.

Around the world, democratically elected regimes are routinely ignoring limits on their power and depriving citizens of basic freedoms. “From Peru to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon: illiberal democracy. It has been difficult to recognize because for the last century in the West, democracy — free and fair elections — has gone hand in hand with constitutional liberalism — the rule of law and basic human rights. But in the rest of the world, these two concepts are coming apart”. Democracy without constitutional liberalism, as we in Pakistan know very well, is producing centralized regimes, erosion of liberty, ethnic conflicts and war.

Contrary to what President Zardari says and believes, today the greatest threat to Pakistan’s democracy, in fact Pakistan itself, stems not from religious militancy and secretarianism but from (a) the absence of a genuinely democratic political order, and (b) the surging American imperialism. The Farewell address of George Washington will ever remain an important legacy for small nations like Pakistan. In that notable Testament, the Father of the American Republic cautioned that “an attachment of a small or weak toward a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter”.

“It is folly in one nation”, George Washington observed, “to look for disinterested favours from another…it must pay with a portion of its independence for what ever it may accept under that character”. No truer words have been spoken on the subject. Pakistan is paying and will continue to pay a very heavy price for the folly of attaching itself to America. In this country democracy is only permissible when the results are favourable to America.

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Governments are instituted to secure certain inalienable rights of human beings as the American Declaration of Independence put it. If a “democratic” government does not preserve liberty and law and does not protect the life, property and honour of its citizens, that it is a “democracy” is a small consolation.

The writer is a former federal secretary.  He joined Pakistan’s central superior service in 1949 and served with five Presidents & three Prime ministers.  He retired in 1993 & now contributes columns to a Pakistani daily, The News. Email: roedad@comsats.net.pk, roedad.com
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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. [...] This cup of tea was served by: Wonders of Pakistan [...]

  2. Dear Friend, I am writing from Turkey. All of the above mentioned determinations are certainly right and true. This is absolutely a fact that West and East are two very different worlds. Materialism and sordidness are the basic ideas of West. Actually we do not have much to learn from them about democracy. So, we must return to our own original and uncontaminated culture again. To tell the truth, we share the same problem with you, here in Turkey. So, we do not need to accept constitutional or another kind of liberalism and we must reject all, what to speak of imperialism. Kind regards

  3. Well dear Husnu Both india and Pakistan are in fact being ruled by MOBOCRACY .We ignored the importance of family planning .Mrs. Gandhi tried it to implement like China but lost Muslim support and her govt. fell on the ground .ideal democracy needs !00% literacy .it is a distant dream for us what to say about Pakistan .

  4. What a thoughtful post.

    (And Husnu S, what a facile view of the world you must have. Ask Homi Bhabha; it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.)

  5. Can be summed in one word. Demagoguery

  6. This seems to be great…
    There is nothing to be commented on
    lets enjoy life…

    • BK Singh, I appreciate your visit and comment. Thank you.

  7. [...] Democracy in Pakistan [...]

  8. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    India has seen more than 50 years of monarchical democracy led by a single family lead party, which eventually lead the country into a mess of corruption, red tapism, communalism, appeasement politics, reservation and God knows what not. We have also seen imperialism which also didn’t do any good to us as a nation. So given with any *cracy, if the Governance is not given to responsible people without proper restraints in place, it would hit the same dead end and will be misused to worst possible extent.

    The recent Jasmine revolution in Arab countries as well as the movement led by Shri Anna Hajare and his team in India bring fresh air into ideas of governance and outline the possible remedies in the current democratic system. The very agenda of current politicians is to keep population divided and appease them separately to rule them. When people stand up and become united, they don’t have any choice left except to do what is good for the country and for the nation. One voice can be wrong, but not a million voices can be wrong altogether.

    I think it is high time for Indians Pakistanis to realize the fact that good governance is any citizen’s fundamental right and they will have to stand up and assert this right together by dissolving the differences within.

    • Aagosh, I couldn’t say it better than what you have said, a very right, very truthful dilemma we the people of India and Pakistan face at the hands of our rulers. And your last para is the ultimate word on our coming out of these pseudo ‘cracies’ – to achieve the real goal of a true democratic polity i.e. the government of the people, for the people and by the people.

  9. The situation Pakistan is facing is totally different from India…even though corruption is rampant here in India, still India is able to progress because democracy was active and there was never any intervention by the military in the government…
    The military rulers in Pakistan adopted the strategy of diverting people’s attention from democracy by inciting hatred against India and particularly Kashmir.
    Now the same approach has resulted in country as a haven for anti-social elements.
    In my childhood, we were told that the British created differences between our people and divided the country into India and Pakistan.
    Now looking at the present state of Pakistan…I feel jittery to even think of a United India……

  10. independent media, judiciary and civil society has emerged as agent of change that would hopefully bring transparency, accountability, civil liberties, national integrity and political maturity. Aslam kaukab, Islamabad

  11. Benazir Bhutto was the only lady who wanted to establish
    democracy in Pakistan.

    pakistani politician of islamabad

    • There is no reply to all the questions that are confronting our land of the pure. We had a very simpe but an august start from the day one, Aug the 14th, 1947 and yet we have even not been able to establish a system in this country, (a very basic question). System runs this world so how a country can’t be?

      First Ask and Cry for the System and then damn care who will be the President and the PM.

      Zahid Husain

  12. [...] 1. Democracy in Pakistan [...]

  13. [...] 1. Democracy in Pakistan [...]

  14. [...] domino effect 8. Supreme Court – The only Ray of Hope 9. Cry, The beloved Pakistan 10. Democracy in Pakistan 11. La Patrie en Danger. Time to Speak 12. August 14, 2009 – What was there [...]

  15. well-written

  16. I’ve been surfing online more than 3 hours lately, but I by no means discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is pretty worth sufficient for me. Personally, if all site owners and bloggers made just right content as you probably did, the web will probably be a lot more helpful than ever before.


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