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Democracy is in Decline. Pakistan Going through Consolidation of Authoritarianism

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    In this article, Farah Adeed highlights the threats that Pakistan faces at the hands of a flawed and controlled democracy and a growing trend of authoritarianism across the globe.

    Academics and researchers working on democracy are observing a constant decline in political democracy around the world. Freedom House reported in 2018 that democracy around the world was ‘under assault and in retreat around the globe’. Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, also noted that the abdication of the United States of America, champion and defender of liberal democracy, from it historical commitment to protect and defend democracy across the world has created more space for China and Russia to exert their influence. These are frightening trends for democracy-loving individuals as well as nations since a threat to democracy implies to a threat to fundamental human rights, civil liberties, political inclusiveness, freedom of expression and the rule of law.

    As a matter of fact, the aforementioned report of Freedom House is not the only document which empirically suggests decline in democracy rather two renowned scholars on democracy Dr. Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, and Dr. Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, collected data in liberal democracies and offered some politically disturbing conclusions. Foa-Mounk studies suggest the end of consolidation paradigm in the established democracies where citizens are increasingly becoming critical of liberal democracy. The most disturbing finding was the response of 46 percent respondents in the USA who claimed they either “never had” or had “lost” faith in US democracy.

    The situation in South Asia is even worse where the rise of populism, military intervention, ethnic politics, self-centered political elite and complex class alliances dominate the political process and have pushed democracy into a no man’s land. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have failed to become genuine, representative democracies that ensure the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights. As a matter of fact, in most South Asian countries freedom of expression is still considered a privilege, not a right, enjoyed by few.

    Some questions need to be answered to understand the state of democracy in Pakistan; how were general elections 2018 held? Is freedom of expression a fundamental right enjoyed by everyone according to the law? Do religious minorities enjoy equal socio-political rights in the country? Is the state of Pakistan tolerant?  And more importantly, have enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings been stopped?

    The case of Pakistan, an emerging democracy, is both important and worrying. The country has seen three consecutive General Elections since 2008 which obviously marks the absence of direct military rule. But it does not necessarily qualify the country to be treated as liberal democracy or even a free democracy. Some questions need to be answered to understand the state of democracy in Pakistan; how were general elections 2018 held? Is freedom of expression a fundamental right enjoyed by everyone according to the law? Do religious minorities enjoy equal socio-political rights in the country? Is the state of Pakistan tolerant?  And more importantly, have enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings been stopped?

    In Pakistan, the elections have historically been rigged to bring in ‘obedient’ civilian governments by the powerful military. But after the completion of the second ‘democratically elected’ government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), there was unprecedented pressure on the military establishment of the country which lessened the chances of rigging on the polling day. Analysts argue the elections were allegedly ‘managed’ not rigged this time. The military establishment allegedly forced politicians to join Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and support him to defeat ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It is important to mention here that Mr. Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for not being “honest” and “truthful” and convicted by an accountability court for possessing ‘assets beyond known sources’. The general elections 2018 were not held in the democratic spirit which emphasises on equal opportunity for every individual as well as political party contesting the elections. An election held under controlled political settings and clouds of suspicions not only makes the installed government questionable but also raises serious concerns over the quality of the system.

    Secondly, the constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression but the political forces and military establishment always feel threatened if any such right is practically given to critics or public intellectuals. Media houses and journalists recently claimed that they were being instructed to impose self-censorship if they wanted their channels or newspapers continue to flourish. Several reports suggest that Pakistani media is facing ‘an unprecedented level of imposed self-censorship’ by the state of Pakistan. in a recent judgement, the Supreme Court of Pakistan observed that “nebulous tactics, such as issuing advice to self-censor, to suppress independent viewpoints, to project prescribed ones, to direct who should be hired or fired by media organisations is also illegal.” It reflects the sorry state of affairs in contemporary Pakistan where a civilian government along with the representatives of unelected institutions is all set to reduce the spaces for citizens, journalists and public intellectuals for free discourse on issues of national importance.

    Roberto in his essay Modernization and Authoritarianism argues that if we are actually witnessing consolidation of authoritarian regimes all over the world where western-capitalism has failed to appeal to the masses and autocratic regimes like China and Russia following the western economic ideology are economically more appealing. Pakistan’s continued failure to convert itself into a liberal democracy suggests that it is not in the transition mode, rather it is the authoritarianism which is in a phase of consolidation.

    Thirdly, despite the fact that the father of nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah categorically had said “you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State,” Yet, religious minorities in Pakistan face utmost social marginalization and political discrimination.

    In a latest example, the SC acquitted a Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and the country had to see widespread protests, violence and anti-state slogans. After much deliberation and mindful efforts, the government reached an agreement with the protesters and the roads were cleared for the public, school going children and patients to visit their doctors.  Religious clergy still continues to haunt free thinkers, progressive ideas and democratic trends in the country. The incumbent government has promised to change the fate of the country but it is yet to be seen how it will respond to the religious fanatics who enjoy considerable political support across the country.

    Fourthly, the state of Pakistan has become more intolerant while dealing with dissenters and human rights activists. Enforced disappearances have become a political norm in the country. ‘Political prisoners’ are allegedly abducted by the state agencies and kept away for years to silence them and to convey a strong message to everyone around. Although Prime Minister Imran Khan has recently approved the recommendations to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to declare enforced disappearances a criminal offence yet the practice of forced abduction continues to dominate in several parts of the country.

    Aforesaid reasons lead us to conclude that Pakistan has failed to protect some fundamental human rights, and that in turn raises some serious question about the flawed democracy in the country. Larry Diamond, a prominent Political Scientist, argues that in some countries there is a trend to create a facade of democracy to legitimize the regime generally due to internal or external pressures. In Larry’s terminology such systems are characterized as “pseudo democracies, elective authoritarian regimes or managed democracies”.  For some people in Pakistan, democracy evolves at a slower pace and takes time. Elections are a basic for a democracy and regular elections coupled with increased per capita income automatically implies transition towards democracy.  But Dr. Roberto challenges such beliefs and counters them on empirical grounds. Roberto in his essay Modernization and Authoritarianism argues that if we are actually witnessing consolidation of authoritarian regimes all over the world where western-capitalism has failed to appeal to the masses and autocratic regimes like China and Russia following the western economic ideology are economically more appealing. Pakistan’s continued failure to convert itself into a liberal democracy suggests that it is not in the transition mode, rather it is the authoritarianism which is in a phase of consolidation.

    In a world where democracy is in constant decline, the trend of consolidating authoritarian regimes offers a dark view of the future. Democracy is a system which gives dignity and recognition to every adult individual in a political setting by sharing the political responsibility at equal terms. Therefore, a threat to democracy across the world demands global commitment and collective actions to be taken. The role of academia, civil society and media is the most important in this age of populism. Masses need to be educated, and provided with facts and unbiased reporting if we want democracy to survive.

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