To start believing that democracy is taking root in Pakistan because the political confrontation between Prime Minister Gilani and General Kayani has not resulted in a military coup would be premature. There have been moments in Pakistan’s political history when the army has lost public support — both General Ayub and General Musharraf were ousted by civil revolts — without leading to any durable triumph of democracy in the country. Why should it be different now?
Sceptics cannot ignore the responsibility civilian governments bear for Pakistan’s democratic deficit. To view them when in power in Pakistan as helpless victims of military manoeuvres would be wrong, even if they have had to contend with the extraordinary weight of the armed forces within the system. The hallmark of the civilian governments in Pakistan has been misrule, corruption and fractured politics. Their governance has been poor to the point of prompting military intervention with a measure of public support. They have failed to address economic problems meaningfully. Their external policies, controlled in vital areas by the military no doubt, have remained within the traditional Pakistani grooves of confrontation with India. Their larger view of Pakistan’s national interest has not differed essentially from that of the military, and this has included the centrality of the Kashmir issue, the acquisition of nuclear capability, reliance on the United States of America for leverage against India and China for containing it, and close ties with Saudi Arabia for strengthening the country’s Islamic identity and giving it a personality outside the Indian sub-continent. The terror threat to India has not diminished under civilian rule in Pakistan, nor have curbs been imposed on extremist religious groups advocating jihad against India. The water issue is now being artificially raised to unwarranted levels of contention by the civilian set-up. In short, the civilian part of the Pakistani establishment is almost as much answerable for the stunting of democratic institutions and for the country’s many failures as the military is.
The current stand-off between the government and the armed forces in which the civilian government has been unusually defiant does not alter the basic problem with institutionalizing democracy in Pakistan. Does Pakistan have political leaders with a track record of commitment to democratic norms that would make them credible instruments of democratic change in the country? If the political actors in Pakistan and their scripts remain unchanged because the political environment is structured the way it is, meaningful democracy will continue to elude Pakistan. As it happens, the civilian personalities alternating in power have been the same — Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, with the latter now replaced by her husband, Asif Zardari — and they have by no means been paragons of democratic values. This is because the blockages in the political system remain intact, with the internal contest for power amidst ethnic divisions, regional differences, the overwhelming weight of the Punjab province in the polity, the role of the armed forces and the judiciary, the religious forces and so on, limiting the scope for a break in traditional thinking on how to solve the country’s many problems, of which charting a new course towards India ought to be an important component.
Is the Turkish model a way out for Pakistan? Turkey is an Islamic country that successfully practices democracy with an institutionalized role of the military in politics. General Musharraf often mentioned Turkey as a country Pakistan could emulate. But there are fundamental differences between Turkey and Pakistan. The genesis of modern Turkey and the new state of Pakistan have nothing in common. Kemal Atatürk, the father of the Turkish nation, was a military leader who established Turkey’s frontiers in war with Greece, followed by a massive population exchange that left no Turks in Greece and no Greeks in Turkey. Kemal Atatürk broke Turkey’s links with the Arab world politically and culturally. By strictly imposing the ideology of secularism on Turkey, he deliberately diluted Turkey’s Islamic profile as he considered Islam an obstacle for the country’s modernization. Pakistan’s case history, its politics, its religious orientation, its links with the Arab world, and so on, distinguish it from Turkey. Unlike in the case of Turkey where the military was the pillar of the country’s national agenda of modernization and secularism, the military in Pakistan not only had no such agenda, it, in fact, played a highly retrograde role under General Zia-ul-Haq in Islamizing Pakistan, quite apart from the links that the Pakistani armed forces have maintained with religious parties and jihadi groups for internal and external purposes.
Any perceived similarity between military coups in Turkey and in Pakistan — three times in both countries — that points to a Turkish solution in institutionalizing the role of the military in Pakistan’s polity would be misleading. Since the country’s inception, the Turkish armed forces have given themselves an institutional role of strictly upholding Atatürk’s secular codes even at the cost of democratic principles, a role eroded in recent years by external pressure from the European Union for a reduction of the military’s role in politics as part of Turkey’s eligibility for membership as a democratic state, and, more importantly, with the rise of Islamist forces in the country through democratic politics with an agenda of tilting the balance between Islam and secularism in favour of the former. The Pakistan armed forces are politically obsessed not with secularism but with India.
The Arab Spring was supposed to herald democratic change in authoritarian, military dominated states like Egypt through a street uprising led by the social media generation. It has ended with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists gaining undisputed majority in recent elections. In Tunisia, too, the Islamists have gained from the ouster of autocracy. This raises questions about the nature of democracy in the Islamic world, in particular whether democracy should also mean a liberation of the individual and the society from religious dictates.
The events in the Arab world actually carry a negative message for change in Pakistan. Until now, religious parties in Pakistan have not been able to win more than a handful of seats in elections, though outside the formal electoral system they exert considerably more influence on politics. With open confrontation between the Pakistani Taliban and the country’s military and the spread of domestic terrorism, Islamic groups in Pakistan have become anti-state, not because the state has traditionally suppressed them or projected a secular face but because of cooperation with the US to control the extremist groups targeting Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. If the ousted autocratic Arab regimes were seen to be working with the US to suppress domestic dissent and prevent any form of political destabilization that could endanger Israel’s security, Pakistan’s quandary is that it is under pressure to cooperate with the US for external reasons and oppose its interests for internal reasons.
All in all, the overthrow of secular regimes in North Africa and their replacement by Islamist forces, the pressures building up on President Assad’s secular regime in Syria by the West as well as Islamist forces, the sectarian political activism of the authoritarian Gulf regimes, with whom Pakistan is close, does not augur well for democratic change in Pakistan. To expect Pakistan to swim against the tide in the Islamic world would be wishful thinking.
Published in The Telegraph 8th January 2012