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Does Democracy Have A Future In Pakistan?

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Umer Farooq explains what the current attitudes of the United States foreign policy establishment and the conditions of the Pakistani middle class hold for the future of democracy in Pakistan.

On October 16, 2009, the then US President, Barack Obama, signed a unanimously passed bill into law; a bill that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan to about $7.5 billion over the next five years. The US president signed the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, that talked about a direct partnership between the US Administration and the Pakistani people, which, according to the wordings of the bill, was aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s democratic institutions.

A not so subtle change was taking place in the thinking of Washington’s political establishment after eight years of persistent support to the military government of General Musharraf. Despite the fact that Pakistan’s military and security apparatus was at the forefront of the war against terror, the wording of the bill specifically favoured Pakistan’s newly elected PPP government in Islamabad over the military establishment, thus igniting a controversy within Pakistan’s political circles with the opposition and military perceiving it as an interference in the sovereign functioning of Pakistani government. The law required a certification from the US Secretary of State that Pakistan’s ‘security forces were not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan’.

The bill was named after its authors – John Kerry and Richard Lugar – who were seen as the representatives of Washington’s liberal political establishment that saw the spread of democracy, democratic and liberal values across the world as part of their political philosophy; liberal internationalism.

This is the political philosophy which saw United States as the bastion of democratic and liberal values and perceived it the divine mission of US to help spread democratic values across the world.

No matter whether the leader in Washington belonged to the Democrats or the Republicans, liberal internationalism remained the guiding principle of US self-perception and its mission in the world.

This, however, changed the moment Donald Trump entered the White House for he was neither a liberal and nor an internationalist. He was in direct revolt against the liberal internationalist political establishment of Washington, which he termed a group of ‘corrupt’ political heavy weights who perceived the spread of democracy as the divine mission of the United States and its political and military power.

Trump wanted to disengage from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and didn’t bother about the kind of political values Pakistan and other third world countries adhered to. Serious political analysts within the US don’t describe him as anti-democratic, in any sense of the term, within the domestic political context of the United States. But Trump is not ready to waste American taxpayers’ money on vague political missions of spreading democratic values in foreign lands.

Hence, his dealing with countries like Pakistan is not at all based on protecting Pakistan’s political system – as was obviously the case during former President Obama’s tenure in the White House.

For the last one year, Trump has attempted to establish a working relation with Pakistan and its leadership. His inclination to slightly come in support of Pakistan – remember it was too subtle a support – during rising military tensions between Pakistan and India didn’t go unnoticed in Pakistan.

And not surprisingly, he wants a business-like relation with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services as he needs their help in extricating US military from a quagmire in Afghanistan. The flattering words he used for Prime Minister Imran Khan also didn’t go unnoticed in Islamabad.

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So, it is the 1970s and 1980s all over again as far as Washington’s proclivities for what kind of political systems their allies should have are concerned. Washington’s new political masters don’t care any longer for whether Pakistan should have a free press, whether Pakistan’s military is interfering in the functioning of the political and judicial system of the country, or whether the country is adhering to democratic and liberal political values.

Just like the Republican Administrations of the last three decades of the 20th century, the incumbent Republican administration of Donald Trump is as interested in using the Pakistani military and intelligence services for their capacity to influence events in Afghanistan.

But this time, it is happening differently. The vote banks of the American middle and working classes now stand consolidated in support of Donald Trump and his anti-liberal internationalism agenda.

Now, US analysts are quite openly pointing out that the middle and working classes in American society just want American jobs back. These jobs have been taken away from Americans by the growing Chinese economy and by other countries for which American society has been acting as ‘consumers of last resort’ since the days of the Cold War, thanks to the liberal internationalism of Washington’s ‘corrupt’ elite.

So, we can easily and safely conclude that American working and middle classes are the driving forces behind Washington’s retreat from the agenda of supporting the spread of liberal and democratic values across the world.

Pakistan’s traditional political classes have increasingly relied on the support of foreign powers during the post-Musharraf period in the power tussles with the country’s military establishment. For instance, Benazir Bhutto was relying on the support of US foreign policy establishment in her dealing with the Musharraf regime in the early months of 2007. Just before her arrival in Pakistan from self-exile, she was banking on US support to cut a deal with the military government of Musharraf, which was fast losing popular support.

Zardari and Sharif are no less of beneficiaries of the overall policies of the liberal internationalists in Washington, who continued to push for more democratic freedoms in Pakistani society in the pre-Donald Trump era.

It seems that those ‘good times’ of Washington coming all out in support of democratic values and hence in support of the traditional political class in Pakistan are over now. Not surprisingly, we now see the anti-politics gimmicks of Imran Khan and his allies becoming more rampant. Curbs on the media are becoming a regular feature of Pakistani public life and there is no dearth of those who openly campaign against the political system. Moreover, those advocating openly against the political system are not sitting on the fringe of the political system but are walking the power corridors nowadays.

However, the more potent threat to the continuation of democratic politics in Pakistan comes not from the changing attitude of those sitting at the helm of affairs in Washington. Instead, it comes from within the country – the social base to the political system is provided by the middle class, which is now shrinking.

If the American middle classes are turning away from liberal internationalism of the old political elite, the Pakistani middle classes are too pre-occupied with making ends meet and are thus drifting away from positions where it used to provide ideological support to the democratic political system.

Sociologists and political scientists are in agreement that a middle class in every society provides the basis for a democratic system and Pakistan has been no exception to this rule – support for accountability, political stability, rule of law and representative democracy all get their ideological support from the educated middle classes in Pakistan.

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The middle class in Central Punjab provides support to both major parties and contenders for powers in the country – Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – and disenchantment of these classes is seen as a fatal blow to the continuation of democratic politics in the country.

Furthermore, the deteriorating economic conditions in the country are having two impacts on the Pakistani middle classes.

Firstly, poor economic conditions will ultimately lead to disenchantment of Pakistan’s middle classes with the political system. It is the general perception in society that the economic benefits of this political system are being delivered at the doorsteps of a particular elite. This perception was reinforced by the massive propaganda campaign of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which also attracted support from military’s propaganda machinery during PML-N’s government.

Now, the PTI is in power but the economic conditions of the middle classes have not changed. The people of the same socio-economic elite – the crony capitalists and feudalists – are filling the seats in power corridors.

This has reinforced the perception that the change of government doesn’t mean better economic conditions for the middle classes. Hence, the middle classes are disenchanted with the political system.

Secondly, the deterioration of economic conditions has led to the shrinking of the middle classes.

Recently, Dr Hafiz Pasha, a leading economist of the country and former federal minister, wrote a newspaper piece in which he lamented the dismal economic conditions in which the middle classes of Pakistan have to live. Pasha wrote, “In 2001-02, 43 percent of the population was in the middle class. By 2015-16, the percentage had fallen to 38 percent. Therefore, the presence of the middle class is shrinking.”

Pasha further writes, “Based on the above findings, there is (a) need to explain why the middle class of Pakistan is shrinking and why their incomes are growing slowly. The first reason is the adverse development in the labour market during the last few years, with regard to employment opportunities for educated workers, a large segment of whom are in the middle class…. Second, the middle class is being squeezed by rising costs of living, especially of housing and utilities. The expansion in the number of housing units with two to four rooms between 2010-11 and 2014-15 has been only 10 percent.”

Ironically, we see our political class lament the oppression of state machinery and wrong policies of every government and their impact on the oppressed people of Pakistan. But we hardly see them lamenting the fact that this deteriorating economic condition is eroding the very basis of democratic politics in the country. In these circumstances, democracy doesn’t have a very bright future in Pakistan, especially in the face of the fact that predatory forces are ready to change the very nature of the political system in Pakistan.


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Naya Daur