Dictatorship in Democracy
Pakistan must chalk a way forward by cutting through blatant undemocratic practices and interference from the military hierarchy.
The level of democratic development in South Asia has not been uniform. India has established strong democratic traditions and culture. It has created well-established institutions and in its entire history never lapsed into military or autocratic rule except for a brief interlude when late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. And for this she had to pay a heavy price. Sri Lanka’s record has been relatively good too, apart from the fact that ethnic based civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils prevented many areas in the conflict ridden parts of the country from fully participating in the democratic process. It has a Presidential system as opposed to most of the other South Asian countries having a parliamentary form of government. Bangladesh’s record has been mixed. It has intermittently lapsed into military rule or a quasi-military dispensation. A manifestation of it was the formation of a technocratic government in the aftermath of the judiciary-parliament confrontation in 2007, but now seems set on the path of democracy. On the whole Bangladesh is ahead of Pakistan in democratic development primarily due to fewer military interventions and cultural and ethnic coherence. In the case of Nepal, the monarchy after a long struggle has eventually been overthrown. However, the Maoists have yet to fully reconcile to the democratic process and institutions remain weak. In Pakistan, the military has ruled directly for nearly half the time since independence and for the remaining period indirectly exercised political power.
Several factors have contributed to Pakistan’s anemic democracy. There were hardly any solid political parties in the part that constituted Pakistan. Most of the Muslim leaders at partition were in the Indian National Congress. In reality, Pakistan was created through a movement under the brilliant and dedicated leadership of Jinnah. The Muslim League was an elitist party and the political parties that were in Pakistan like the Jammat, Unionists in Punjab
and the erstwhile National Awami Party of former NWFP were opposed to the establishment of Pakistan. In sharp contrast the Indian National Congress had strong roots and a long history of democratic struggle both within and outside India.
Repeated military coups further weakened Pakistan’s political parties and state institutions. It is inherent in military rule to weaken other institutions. To legitimize themselves, military rulers promote a compliant judiciary, cultivate selectively selfseeking politicians and try to create a façade of democracy. This stunts genuine political parties and develops a highly adversarial relation with them. Due to its dominant power, many aspects of national policy and societal thinking is shaped by the military.
Ever since partition, the adversarial relationship with India has been a major contributing factor in further tilting the balance in the military’s favor. Taking advantage of its geopolitical and strategic importance, Pakistani leaders have during the Cold War and more recently after the events of 9/11, closely aligned the country with the United States to countervail India. For U.S. military rulers, this suited their short-term interests as they could manipulate them and had to deal with only one center of power as opposed to several in a democratic configuration. Moreover, U.S. assistance was mostly directed toward the military and the perceived threat from India siphoned huge resources from within, making it the most powerful and developed institution in the country.
Our experience has been that with every military coup and each time the cycle is repeated, the re-establishment of legitimate rule grows more difficult. There is no doubt that the current government’s performance falls far below expectations but in fairness it has to be judged in the light of the challenges that it faces and the long history of military interventions.
The political leaders cannot be absolved for their failures and dismal performance. The current structural inefficiencies are a result of patronage and parentage politics as well as weak institutions. Elections within political parties are merely cosmetic and dynastic politics prevails. This has to change if democracy is to take root. Their autocratic rule, blatant undemocratic practices and absence of governance coupled with frequent interference from the military hierarchy has trampled democratic growth. More significantly, failure of democracy through corruption at the top is a serious impediment towards governance and is clearly preventing political and social development. The people are not willing to accept the selfish and erratic decisions of the power of civilian or military elite. For correcting this weakness, politicians need to develop a robust parliament with effective committees, support formation of an independent judiciary, a strong election commission and an effective Auditor General. They also have to develop a capacity to govern and be able to formulate national policies and not leave it to the army to take major decisions on foreign and defense issues. It would be a folly on the part of the political and military leaders to allow an uneven civil-military relationship to prevail. Democracy fails to grow in an environment where there is disequilibrium between the civil and military power and where civil and military governments alternate. Democracy does not necessarily lead to good governance but due process of checks and balances and strengthening of institutions that are inherent in any democratic system should lead to performance legitimacy as well.
The 18th Amendment has removed some of the serious drawbacks of concentration of power. There is now greater scope for devolution of power and resources to the provinces and this should lead to improvement in the quality of governance in the longer term. Besides, with an independent judiciary, robust media and growing civil society, new centers of power have emerged creating a healthy dynamic of additional checks and balances. In practice, however, President Zardari by virtue of holding the two posts of President and party Chairman retains enormous power. This aberration hopefully is only a transitional phenomenon.
The democratic wave that is sweeping across the Middle East is a stark reminder that military or autocratic rule will not be tolerated by the people nor will they accept corrupt and inefficient civilian rulers.
Time is long overdue for Pakistan’s political leaders and military establishment to stand back and learn from repeated experience of failures. The political class cannot continue to overlook its shortcomings and has to provide better governance. The military must get back to its primary role of providing national security. Our current situation has become so dire that there is no time to lose. Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General of the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. Lt.General Masood holds a Masters in Defense and Strategic Studies, and has also served as a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. He was a consultant for the leading U.S. defense manufacturer United Defense Limited Partnership (UDLP) for five years. He currently writes on national security, weapons proliferation and has been covering the nuclear program of Pakistan and India.
A long history of military interventions
has stilted Pakistan’s democracy.