This unpublished article was written by Samia Altaf, a Pakistani scholar and physician and a Woodrow Wilson fellow. A friend in Pakistan forwarded it to me, and it can be read at her blog, The South Asian Idea.
by Samia Altaf
Pakistan, labeled the most dangerous country in the world, with loose nukes and angry jihadis, is unraveling. It needs help. To be helped it needs to be understood. Urging a transition to “true democracy,” after the fourth military dictator has suspended the constitution for the second time and sacked a judiciary that dared to question his legitimacy, betrays either naiveté or disinterest. Both will hurt in the long run, if there is a long run.
Understand that there has not been much difference between military and civilian rule in Pakistan. When unreal hopes are betrayed by one, the other is accorded a relieved welcome. Four painful cycles ought to be enough to make that clear. The pundits wringing their hands at the ills of dictatorship today are the same who saw huge silver linings when the fourth dictator, the “enlightened moderate,” came along to clean the democratic mess.
Understand that both dictators and democrats have attacked the judiciary in the same way, both have pandered to the religious fundamentalists in the same way, both have harassed political opponents in the same way, both have enriched themselves in the same way.
Understand why this is so. Understand that the vast majority of the 160 million people have gained nothing since they were “liberated”—not from those who founded the country, not from the democrats, not from the dictators, not from the priests. Half of them are still illiterate, a third are below the poverty line, many still die from the lack of clean water, and many still live in another century. Any surprise they are not active participants in the struggle for “true democracy?”
Understand that the forgotten have no expectations of political equality or fundamental rights from their rulers, be they dictators or democrats. No political party has bothered to make that the central thrust of its campaign and one that did in the past only abused it cynically. All the leading democrats are ever ready to ditch the aspirations of their supporters and cut a deal with the dictator of the day. It is an easier route to the top.
Understand that in a deeply unequal society without individual rights, and with extreme dependence of the many on the few, the functions of political representation and social protection are inseparable. Understand that the natural state of such a society is one of patronage. Understand that the unprotected and powerless are as rational as anyone else—when forced to participate in an electoral game, they vote for the most powerful patron with the strongest links to the ruler. Understand that the preyed upon want their protectors to be on the winning side first and represent their political ideology second. Ideological somersaults and shifting loyalties matter but have to be accepted pragmatically in the real world that exists for them. Count the number of political representatives who have been in every party that has ever ruled the country. Watch how high they hold their heads; watch how much they are sought after.
Understand this is still very much a monarchical society in which the ruler, in whatever garb, believes he rules by divine right Understand the culture in which every ruler, legitimate or illegitimate, begins to see visions of being anointed by the Almighty to “save the nation.” The more incompetent and unprepared the chosen one, the greater the proof of divine purpose. The third dictator (the “meek”) used to say, in so many words, with awe and humility: “Look at me, what is my worth? Would I be here were it not for the will of Allah?”
The leading prose writer of the country called such leaders “men without stature.” Calling them pygmies would have landed him in jail for abusive language. And why does the Almighty continue to find such pygmies? Because He is putting His chosen people to His severest test! Understand this is an environment rife with such fatalistic beliefs.
Understand this is a society at a stage of development where political parties are personal affinity groups with lifetime leaders—the leading democrat is chairperson for life of a party she inherited from her father. Understand this is a banana republic in which the “best” president and the most “appropriate” prime minister are determined not by the people but by meta-patrons abroad. Understand this is a place where a prime minister can be parachuted from above one day and be consigned to the doghouse the next. Understand this is system in which the king’s courtiers can switch loyalties any minute and have to be continuously bribed. Count the size of the cabinet; compare that to the output. And, nary a protest from any side, nary a protest on any count.
So what does a transition to “true democracy” mean in a situation like this? Understand that representative democracy is not going to emerge any time soon by pressure from below. Democracy will be the name given to a sharing of power amongst the elites holding the wealth, the guns, and the controls over rules and rituals. And, barring anything different, this democracy will go the way of previous democracies, each morphing from “true” to “sham,” each leaving the country more wounded and vulnerable than before. Has this not been the story of the last sixty years?
How then can we get something out of the elite democracy that we will inevitably inherit? Not by imagining a battle won, not by wishing for some ideal unfettered democracy, but by working towards a system of some checks and balances that limits the accumulation of power and the abuse of office by ruling groups, a system that advances human rights and access to justice, and one that enlarges the space for hearing the voices from below.
By some quirk, this was a scenario beginning to unfold with the assertion of independence by the judiciary, by its questioning of arbitrary executive authority, by its taking up the causes of ordinary citizens. This was the first institutional development in over sixty years that promised a meaningful step towards good governance in the interest of the ordinary citizens. And even before one could be sure it was for real, the fourth dictator (the “enlightened”) smothered it, quickly and ruthlessly, risking even his carefully varnished image of moderation in the process.
De Tocqueville said it long ago: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Pakistanis know why. Governance in Pakistan is allergic to accountability. Pakistanis know now what has to change.
So, going back to “free and fair” elections, back to “true democracy,” as promised by a dictator, ruling under an emergency, to a bunch of democrats ready to cut a deal, is not going to do much good. It will be very old wine in very old bottles. Well-wishers of Pakistan, at home and abroad, need to grasp the one promising development in an otherwise sorry history. They have to agree on a one-point agenda—the Supreme Court has to be restored; the independence of the judiciary has to be guaranteed. This is the only leverage we have at the moment, the one issue on which a broad coalition can unite. This is where the fight for “true democracy” begins. Whomsoever is next anointed by God would need to be put to this test of sincerity. Otherwise, the moment and the opening would be lost. Those who are fighting would need to go on fighting.
This unpublished appeal, addressed to friends of Pakistan, at home and abroad, is dedicated to the students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.